Saturday, May 26, 2012

9 Questions Every Expat Partner Should Ask

Hi Everyone, A little while ago I congratulated Rachel Yates on her blog series about questions for expat partners. Rachel has kindly agreed that we can republish that whole series here in one blog post, for your potential enjoyment. Thanks Rachel!

9 Questions Every Expat Partner Should Ask

1. How Long Are We Going For? 

There is a great deal of research showing that the typical length of international assignment now falls in the one to three year category, but not so much highlighting how one assignment often leads to another. So when you ask the question “how long are we going for?”, I am not referring to this particular move, but to the bigger picture... “How long do we intend to be expatriates?”

As the accompanying partner, you potentially take on a more vulnerable role, losing primary visa status, [typically] your independent income, and possibly [many of your] legal rights. You may be willing to tolerate this in the short term, but how will you address it if the assignment is extended, or a new one offered?

2. What Are The Role Expectations?

Again, studies have shown that 86 percent of expatriate spouses have not only a Bachelor’s degree or higher, but also an established professional career. So while many take career breaks to spend time with children, their intention is to return to work at some point. International assignments often make this more problematic – not only the invalidity of professional credentials in the host country, but also the visa and EAD (Employment Authorisation Document) requirements, the complex tax issues, and the practicalities of moving, settling in, establishing a support network, and so on. Oh, and the difficulty in explaining to any potential employer that you are not sure exactly how long you are going to be here.

It is possible to maintain a profession, as many career expatriate partners will attest. It does, however, take planning and commitment. Many transferring companies are aware of the changing demographic of the supporting partner, and provide career services and visa support. What they cannot do is ensure employment, professional development and childcare provision, so we still circle back to the original question – whose career will be the primary focus, who will be considered the “trailing spouse” and how do you both feel about this in the short and long term?

3. What Legal Rights Do I Have In The Host Country?

Expatriate assignments are global, and increasingly include destinations with very different laws and legal systems. While you are not expected to have an in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of the legal system, it is vital you understand the laws that personally affect you. For example, the rights of women, the custody of children, [the legality and culture towards] same sex partnerships, and any other laws that may differ significantly from those of your home location should be considered, as well as what legal support is provided in the event of a brush with the law.

...[Also worth considering,] you may have a valid Will, Advanced Directive of Healthcare (Living Will), Power of Attorney and/or named beneficiary in your home country, but are they valid in your host country, and do you have access to the legal services to enforce them should the unthinkable happen? No-one likes to think about what happens if things go wrong, but as the expat partner, you will have interrupted your independent income stream, [typically] be dependent on your partner for right of residency, and be judged according to a set of laws that may be at odds with what you believe. In essence, you are putting yourself in a far more vulnerable position, so you need to take steps to protect yourself and your rights should something happen to your partner or your partnership. And then, hopefully, never have to think about it again.

4. What Financial Provisions Will Need To Be Made?

Choosing to go on international assignment in a supporting role means that you interrupt your career, even in the short term. This has potential impact on your pension (both state and company), home country benefits entitlement (depending on the length of time you are out of your host country), earning potential, credit rating and your professional credentials and résumé, so you need to be clear about your financial plans for the future, and how you will safeguard yourself.

As a dependent partner, it may be more difficult to open an individual bank account in your host country, but it is an essential part of your financial security. If something happens to your partner or your relationship, depending on the laws of the country, you may lose access to any assets held jointly, and thus the ability to not only pay any bills and live in the family home, but also to hire legal services. While we hate to think about a loved one being either missing, incapacitated or dead, the reality in these situations is that your legal rights are determined by the law of the land you live in. The same applies in the case of marital breakdown, and the last thing you need in a time of personal or family crisis is a [financial crisis as well].

5. What If Something Happens To The Primary Visa Holder In Terms Of Country Law?

Bear in mind that the transferring partner is [usually] the primary visa applicant, and in most cases, their residence in the country is dependent on their continued employment with the sponsoring company. So if your partner loses his/her job, breaks the terms of the contract, commits a crime or dies, you no longer have the right of residence, regardless of how long you have lived in the country.

For most expats on short term assignments, the immediate response is to return to their home nation. However, the longer the assignment, the greater the family investment in the host location, both in terms of financial assets, education and employment history.

So if you are considering seeking employment, re-entering education, have college age children, or are going to invest larger sums of money, [it is a good idea to] consult a legal or visa specialist to fully understand your rights.

6. Have We Made Legal Arrangements For All Dependents In The Event Of Our Death, Injury Or Incarceration?

I am continually astonished at how few people have a Will, let alone an Advance Directive of Health Care (Living Will), a Trust, or have chosen guardians for their children in the event of their death. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes”, and we should be giving both the same annual attention. You should have valid copies of all of the above held by a lawyer in your home location, and additional host location ones completed as soon as you arrive.

If you have not already heard it enough, I will say it again:  laws vary, and your Embassy/Consulate can only do a certain amount to help. Most Embassies retain a list of local lawyers who speak your language, and other expats will often have recommendations or referrals. As with finding a good doctor, it is always worth finding a good one before an emergency arises.

7. Who Retains Custody Of Any Children In The Event Of A Breakdown Of The Marriage / Partnership, And Can This Be Enforced? 

... As the accompanying partner, you [might] also want to understand how the laws of your home and host nation define your rights as a parent, because there is huge global variation. The types of family going on international assignments are increasingly diverse, with blended family make-ups and complex parenting and care arrangements, none of which are reflected in many of the host country laws. In Britain for instance, mothers tend to be given primary custody, while under Sharia [Islamic] law, fathers have the greater rights. Same sex partnerships are often not even recognized, or in the worst case, illegal.

So, before you go: (a) understand your parental rights in your host country; (b) discuss the issue with your partner to reach a consensus and (c) include custody as part of your written legal arrangements.

8. Is It Possible For Me To Work, Both In Legal, Financial And Practical Terms?

Many transferring employers now purchase career support services for the accompanying partner, recognizing the need/desire to continue a career in the new location. But do not confuse support with the legal right to work (as specified by your visa) or the authorization to work (Employment Authorization Document, Social Security number, Tax ID etc).

However, the legal issues are just part of the picture. Ask yourself whether it is feasible for [you, as] the supporting partner to work in the new location, bearing in mind the potential language and cultural barriers, professional certification requirements, time spent managing the move, childcare requirements, and the need for an understanding employer who will work around the assignment constraints of the primary visa holder.

Happily, with the advent of the Internet, Skype, remote working... and Jo Parfitt’s Career in Your Suitcase guide, there are a far wider range of options available that reflect the need for flexibility that is required.

9. How Does This Move Affect My Career And Earning Potential Long Term?

It is full circle time. Remember our first question, asking “How long will I be going for?”. Here’s the final wake-up call. Many, many spouses have taken a leave of absence and agreed to a short term assignment, only to discover themselves eleven years later on a third continent, having never made it back to work. (Yes, I speak from experience.) Realistically, a two year break on your résumé can be explained, but more than that and you are starting to look at [needing] professional development updates, recertification and the need for more current references.

So before you go, consider what your long term career goals are, if any.If paid employment is important to you, consider whether your current career is portable, whether you can continue it on a remote working basis, whether it has the flexibility and demand to sustain multiple moves, what financial investment is required, or whether you can use the relocation as a catalyst for change.

It [can be] a conundrum. I love the potential for discovery and reinvention that relocation provides, but at the same time, my lack of planning means that I forfeited ten years of earning potential, pension contributions and résumé building. So while it has given me the push to search for purpose rather than simply a pay packet, finding the confidence to re-enter the workforce after ten years is hard, and has required me to start from scratch – with the associated pay scale.

What will/would it do to you?

The Defining Moves blog is the problem child of Rachel Yates, an expat trailing spouse from Wales, who has spent years turning relocation disasters into a worldwide traveling circus. Currently living in San Francisco, Rachel has spent the last ten years routing through London, Nairobi, and Los Angeles, complete with two kids, two dogs and three cats. She has only once been upgraded on a flight.


Liese said...

Besides the big issues you listed (which I think are right-on and very important) other more mundane issues include: can we bring it with us, do we store it, or do we get rid of it? Getting your furnishings or children's things out five-six years later can be like opening a time capsule. I found myself wondering "why did I think it was important to keep this?" Seriously consider renting everything in the new country and selling or giving away all that you leave behind. You'd be amazed at how little you really need upon return.

Sabine Panneau said...

This is a really good series of questions. Some of them, I have to say I had not thought of, so thank you Rachel for sharing them here.
A slightly different version of question #9 could be "Where will we be going next?" as so many people don't think of the next expatration (or return) and just think it will be easy, but leaving can somethimes be as hard as getting there...
I off to check your blog!

Helene Billiet Lyon Culture Land said...

I think that the women going abroad, especially in France should consider the business opportunities offered: mainly language teaching, nursing, translating positions.

Kate Gosselin said...

Helpful tips for expat! Thanks.

DM-CWA said...

To this excellent list I would add: prepare for house guests.

Anonymous said...

I was a trailing spouse for five years in the USA, and, while it is fun at first it becomes very uncomfortable. As you are part of a couple, you become very dependent on the primary visa holder, and your well being is entirely reliant on you both being of the same mind.
We were there so long that the HR personnel had changed several times and I was more or less forgotten about.
Recession hit and we were not even allowed a trip home unless we financed it ourselves.
The first question is very pertinent. How long are we staying?
I gave up a lot in terms of career, pension etc. to go. Our stay was longer than expected. I had no say in when we could return, so had to fight a long battle to be allowed to return to my home country. The relocating company wants the spouse to go with the husband/wife but does nothing to protect their rights.
I have never felt so devalued before.

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