Chinese divorcees seek to change financially crippling clause in law

Under Chinese law, either partner can be forced to pay all of any debt occurred during marriage, lawyers say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 10:27am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 10:56am

Divorcees in China are advocating for the revision of an article in the country’s Marriage Law, saying a stipulation they remain jointly liable for any debts can ruin their lives.

Article 24 of the law, which was put in place in 2004, stipulates that at the time of divorce, any debts incurred during married life must be paid jointly by the couple.

Wei Xiaojun, a lawyer in Hangzhou, said Chinese law entitles creditors to recover the debt from either one of the divorced couple. If one ex-spouse was incapable of paying the debt, the other’s income and assets could be taken to cover it, he said.

One such divorcee, Wang Jinlan, 29, was quoted by China Youth Daily as saying she was shocked to receive a court notice asking her to pay debts incurred by her ex-husband when they were married.

“I had no idea what it was, she said. “It was only after I got the court notice that I found out my ex-husband had borrowed 3 million yuan (US$435,800).”

Many divorcees said they were kept in the dark when their partner borrowed money during their marriages, and felt trapped when they were approached by creditors.

In recent months, divorcees across the country have been advocating for the revision of the clause through a WeChat group, which said it has more than 1,000 members who are mired in debt left by their ex-spouses.

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Last year, the group collected 527 responses to a survey from people who said they were victims of Article 24. Of those, more than 87 per cent were women and over 80 per cent were college educated. More than 73 per cent of victims were still responsible for raising their children after the divorce. Many said their ex-spouse had a gambling problem.

Wei, the lawyer from Hangzhou, said internet finance and the loosening of regulations in private financial services had accentuated the problem by a substantial degree.

China loosened its grip on personal financing in recent years, leading to the emergence of loan sharks who profit from high interest rates.

Wei said one of his clients, who has a respectable government job, has to survive on only 1,000 yuan a month, as the remainder of her salary goes to pay debts run up by her former husband.

A lawyer in Guangdong, Ding Huaiyu, said the law seeks to protect the rights of creditors.

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“In the past, lots of couples tried to escape debt by having one party declare bankruptcy while the other person kept all the money,” he said, “Article 24 set out to prevent this family collusion.

“In today’s China, there is a lack of trust in business. The court wants to preserve and nurture this trust by assuring that creditors can get their loans back,” Ding said.

“If the husband and wife aren’t jointly responsible for the debt, court orders which force debtors to pay back their loans are hard to execute.

That is scant consolation for Wang, the young divorcee asked to pay her ex-husband’s 3 million yuan debt.

In a post on Weibo she wrote: “Once you marry the wrong person, your marriage can ruin you for life. The mistake comes with a hefty cost, which may be one you can’t make up for, for the rest of your life.