For Love or Real Estate: The Cost of Getting Divorced in China

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Imaginechina / AP

A Chinese couple at a real estate fair in the city of Yichang in Hubei province on Oct. 14, 2010

In China, nothing quite kills the romance like the threat of losing real estate. Last month, the country's Supreme Court rolled out a new interpretation of China's Marriage Law that changes the way property disputes are handled after a divorce. Since then, couples across China have been thinking more seriously about tying the knot: in the southwest city of Chongqing alone, marriage registrations fell by 30% in the weeks after the changes were made.

Under the newly redefined law, which took effect on Aug. 13, any property that was purchased before a marriage will no longer be up for negotiation after a divorce; it will belong solely to who bought it or whose name is on the deed. Also, if a house or apartment was purchased by the parents of either the bride or groom, it will revert to that person only, instead of being split between the couple.

Controversy has been brewing since the changes were proposed last November. Some experts argue that the new interpretation will put women at a clear disadvantage in a culture in which marital homes are traditionally provided by men (and in many cases, by their parents). As a result of the new rule, divorced men get to keep houses whose values will undoubtedly skyrocket in China's booming real estate market. Their ex-wives, meanwhile, won't be entitled to any compensation, despite their contributions — financial or otherwise — to the marriage.

"A lot of women contribute money to buying their marital homes together with their husbands, and the homes will be registered under the husband's name," says Leta Hong Fincher, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Beijing's Tsinghua University who has studied China's Marriage Law and its impact on the gender wealth gap. "[Those women's] effort will be completely invisible after they divorce their husbands."

Supporters of the new legal interpretation, though, believe the changes will offer a bit of financial protection to men and women — and their families — as divorce rates are rising sharply across the country. Divorce is still not as common in China as it is in the West, but the numbers have gone up for seven consecutive years. In 2010, a total of 2.68 million couples applied for divorce, an 8.5% increase over the year before, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Beijing has the country's highest divorce rate, with 39% of marriages ending in a split, followed closely behind by Shanghai.

In addition, says Guo Wanhua, a marital lawyer at Chang An Law Firm in Beijing, the newly defined law will help promote judicial consistency when it comes to divorces. "Rulings over property ownership in divorce cases used to vary drastically between different courts," Guo says. "Now the judicial process is made a lot simpler under a clear guideline that treats both genders more equally."

As the debate rages on, some fear the Marriage Law changes could drive property prices up even further in China's already overheated market. According to a survey conducted by the online portal after the new law went into effect, nearly 60% of respondents said they would consider buying a house on their own before marriage to avoid any problems after a divorce. Other couples, however, are seeking to circumvent the Marriage Law interpretation by registering both of their names on property-ownership certificates, making the marital home legally shared property. The government has helped to encourage this by eliminating taxes on adding a spouse's name to a property deed — a policy it announced at the beginning of September.

However, for some people, simply raising such concerns with their partner may prove difficult. "Some women are really angry about the law," says Fincher, who is conducting an online survey to gauge public reaction to the law change. "But when I ask them if they were going to talk to their husbands about adding their names to the deed, some women would say, 'No, no, no, of course not, that would upset my relationship with him.'" Many women are instead venting their anger in popular online forums. "The new interpretation allows whoever bought the house to dominate a marriage," writes one netizen on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like microblog. "As a woman who has been married for seven years without even thinking about adding her name on the deed, I don't know if this is a reminder or bitter irony."