The primary issue between the parties had been whether the law of Mauritius or of South Africa governed their proprietary rights upon divorce. Put simply, the proper law of the marriage had to be determined.
The parties were married to each other on 29 June 1983 in Mauritius. A month later they moved to South Africa and continued to live here until their divorce in November 2011. In about July 2006 the respondent, the wife (plaintiff in the court below) sued the appellant, the husband (defendant in the court below) for divorce in the South Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg, contending that the marriage relationship between her and the respondent had irretrievably broken down.
In her particulars of claim the plaintiff alleged that at the time of her marriage to the defendant he was domiciled in Mauritius and that the proprietary consequences of the marriage ‘are governed by the law of Mauritius’, alternatively, that the parties were married to each other in Mauritius according to the laws of South Africa and that the proprietary consequences of the marriage ‘are accordingly governed by the law of South Africa’. On either basis, she alleged that during the subsistence of the marriage she had contributed to the maintenance and or increase of the husband's estate by the rendering of services and the saving of expenses, which otherwise would have been incurred. She listed the contributions she had made in cash and in kind. She claimed that it was just and equitable that her husband be directed to transfer to her such part of his assets so as to effect an equal division between the parties of their combined net asset values, alternatively, that he pay to her the monetary equivalent thereof. In a further alternative she claimed that the parties were married according to South African law in community of property.
In his plea the husband pleaded that at the time of their marriage he and his wife had agreed that their matrimonial regime would be governed in terms of the provisions of Mauritian law, and in particular in terms of the provisions of the regime legal de separation de biens - separation of goods. The husband pleaded that at the time of the marriage, he and his wife had made a declaration that their marriage was to be governed by the regime legal de separation de biens which was recorded by a marriage officer. The husband pleaded further that in terms of the said regime each party retains its separate estate during the marriage and on dissolution thereof, neither party has a claim against the estate of the other party.
At common law, the proprietary rights of spouses are governed, in the absence of express agreement, by the law of the husband’s domicile at the time of the marriage (lex domicilii matrimonii or the law of the matrimonial domicile) (Frankel’s Estate & another v The Master & another 1950 (1) SA 220 (A) at 241; Sperling v Sperling 1975 (3) SA 707 (A) at 716F-G; Esterhuizen v Esterhuizen 1999 (1) SA 492 (C) at 494C-D; C F Forsyth Private International Law: The Modern Roman-Dutch Law Including the Jurisdiction of the High Courts 5 ed 2012 at 295). The rationale for this rule, according to the Roman Dutch and Civilian authorities, is that the parties are assumed in the absence of any indication to the contrary, to have intended to establish their matrimonial home in the country where the husband was domiciled at the time of the marriage and to have submitted themselves to the matrimonial regime obtaining in that country.
This court assessed the evidence and determined that, at the time of his marriage, the appellant had in fact been domiciled in Mauritius, and accordingly that Mauritian law governs the proprietary regime of the marriage. In analysing Mauritian law, this court held that the separation of goods regime provides that each party to a marriage retains its separate estate during the marriage, and that on dissolution thereof neither party has a claim against the estate of the other unless they have funded the acquisition of particular assets in the other party’s estate, to which they would then be entitled a share. However, as in this matter there is insufficient evidence to show that the respondent contributed to the acquisition of either of the properties of which she sought a share, she has not made out a claim to either of them. Accordingly, the appeal is upheld with costs, and the respondent’s claim for 50 per cent of the value for the properties concerned is dismissed.
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Bertus Preller is a Family Law and Divorce Law Attorney in Cape Town.