Divorce law in Zimbabwe is governed under the Matrimonial Causes Act, which was implemented in 1986.

Divorce proceedings
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Zimbabwe recognizes two types of divorces, the simple or uncontested divorce and the opposed or contested divorce. The first type is the easiest to achieve since both parties wish to terminate the marriage and have agreed to the broad terms of the separation. Whichever type of divorce you're filing, the court has final discretion over such matters as child custody, child support and the division of property.

Contents

Grounds for Divorce

There are two grounds for divorce under the laws of Zimbabwe: irretrievable breakdown of a marriage, and incurable mental illness or continuous unconsciousness of one of the parties to the marriage. The spouse who is filing for divorce must establish one of the grounds whether or not the divorce is contested; however, the court will examine the allegations in detail only if the divorce is opposed.


Divorce Procedure

The process starts by filing a summons with the High Court in the district where the initiating spouse lives. If the divorce is uncontested and all ancillary issues such as child custody, maintenance and property division are agreed, the parties will simply sign consent documents for filing with the court. The process is relatively quick and cost-effective. Contested divorces follow various litigation stages from filing the summons and disclosure of documents that each spouse intends to use at trial, to a hearing before a judge. Each party usually will be represented by a lawyer, though this is not mandatory.

Distribution of Assets

On divorce, property is divided in accordance with the principles set out in the laws of Zimbabwe and specifically, the Matrimonial Causes Act. Broadly, a court may divide both matrimonial property and the personal assets of either spouse in a fair and equitable manner. Assets owned by the spouses individually – even those acquired before marriage – are considered when deciding how to apportion property. The court will look at the relative resources and income-earning capacity of both spouses, and the non-financial contribution made to the family, including contributions made by looking after hearth and home, when deciding how to divide assets.

Custody of Minor Children

Unlike in the United States, Zimbabwe laws favor the granting of sole custody to one parent, usually the mother, on the basis that the child must know where she stands. The guiding principle is the best interests of the minor child. In determining what is the child's best interest, the court will consider the child's age, sex, health, education and religious needs as well as the behavior and financial position of each parent. The non-custodial parent has the right of reasonable visitation to the child which the court will only refuse under exceptional circumstances.

Spousal Maintenance

Zimbabwe law does not guarantee the payment of spousal maintenance after the divorce has been finalized. It is up to the spouse claiming maintenance to show that she is not in a position to maintain herself and therefore needs assistance from her former spouse. Where the spouse is still young and earns a reasonable income, then maintenance may not be granted. Either parent can make an application for an upward or downward variation in spousal maintenance at any time after the divorce if circumstances change.

Process in stages

Distribution of matrimonial property

In making an award of matrimonial property the court applies the principles set out in s 7 of the Matrimonial Causes Act [Chapter 5:13.]. The rights claimed by the spouses under s 7(1) of the Act are dependent upon the exercise by the court of its broad discretion. Section 7(1) of the Act provides that the court may make an Order with regard to the division, apportionment or distribution of “the assets of the spouses including an Order that any asset be transferred from one spouse to the other”. It is important to note that the terms used are the “assets of the spouses” and not “matrimonial property”. The latter term is used because the use of the term “matrimonial property” often leads to the misconception that assets acquired by one spouse before marriage or when the parties are on separation should be excluded from the division, apportionment or distribution exercise. The term “the assets of the spouses” is clearly intended to have assets owned by the spouses individually (his or hers) or jointly (theirs) at the time of the dissolution of the marriage by the court considered when an order is made with regard to the division, apportionment or distribution of such assets. [1]

These are some of the factors the court considers when making an order for division of property/assets:-

By taking these factors into consideration the court endeavours as far as is reasonable and practicable to place the spouses and children in the position they would have been in had a normal marriage relationship continued between the spouses.


UNCONTESTED DIVORCE

Where the parties are agreed on the divorce and all the ancilliary issues e.g. custody of the children, access , maintenance and property sharing, the matter can proceed on an uncontested basis in which case the parties sign relevant documents for filing with the Court. Where the Plaintiff is legally represented the parties will not have to appear in Court. Only the Plaintiff’s lawyer appears in court to apply for the divorce decree. This is cost effective, quicker and convenient.<ref name="Kanokanga and Partners">.


CONTESTED DIVORCE

The contested divorce process consists of various stages:

Pleadings

The formal documents in a matter divorce are referred to as pleadings. Typically, the pleadings in a divorce will consist of the following documents:

Only those facts that are necessary to support a cause of action or to disclose a proper defence should be pleaded in the pleadings. One often finds unnecessary detail and/or facts in the pleadings. The pleadings narrow the disputes and provide guidance to the court on the evidence that is to be led.

Discovery of documents

In the period between close of pleadings and waiting for a trial date, there is a process called discovery, during which each party asks to see the documentation and other material like tape recordings the other party intends to use at trial. Each and every document that a party will use at the trial must be ‘discovered’, i.e. the other party must be given an opportunity to read the document before the trial commences. The documentation may include bank statements, shareholdings in companies, credit card statements, bond accounts and tax returns. It is usually during the discovery process that most of the hidden documents are found, as there are processes that can require specific documents to be brought forward.


Pre-trial conference

The court may at any stage after close of pleadings, or at the request in writing of either party, direct that an informal conference be conducted in the presence of a judge in chambers, in order to consider a settlement or narrowing of disputes.

Trial

Trial proceedings commence with both parties legal representatives being given an opportunity to deliver an opening address, in which the court is informed of the issues that are in agreement and those that are in dispute between the parties. If, on the pleadings, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, he/she must give evidence first. Where the burden of proof is on the defendant, the defendant will be first. After both parties have given evidence, whoever went first may again address the court. The other party then has a chance to respond and the party who went first may reply.

Judgment

A divorce trial must culminate in the granting of judgment. The court may grant any of the following orders:

judgment in favour of the Plaintiff in respect of his/her claim in so far as he/she has proved the same; judgment in favour of the Defendant in respect of his/her defence in so far as he/she has proved the same; or Absolution from the instance if it appears to the court that the evidence does not justify giving judgment for either party. Costs

In giving judgment or in making any order including adjournment or amendment, the court may award such costs as may be just. These costs may also be subject to taxation. While costs are generally awarded to the successful party, this is not a fixed rule. The court may decide not to award costs at all, or may apportion the costs of the proceedings between the parties.

Costs

In giving judgment or in making any order including adjournment or amendment, the court may award such costs as may be just. These costs may also be subject to taxation. While costs are generally awarded to the successful party, this is not a fixed rule. The court may decide not to award costs at all, or may apportion the costs of the proceedings between the parties.

DIVORCE IN A REGISTERED CUSTOMARY LAW UNION

Dissolution of this union is by order of a Magistrates Court. The same grounds outlined above for divorce in a civil marriage apply. It is advised that each party be represented by a legal practitioner though this is not mandatory.

Division of property may be done at the Magistrates court as provided in Section 11(b) (iv) of the Magistrates Court Act [Chapter 7:10]. The Act states that every magistrates court shall have in all civil cases, whether determinable by the general law of Zimbabwe or by customary law, jurisdiction— “in actions in which is claimed a decree of divorce, judicial separation or nullity of a marriage solemnized in terms of the Customary Marriages Act [Chapter 5:07], including actions relating to the division, apportionment or distribution of the assets, whether movable or immovable, of spouses or former spouses of such marriages and the payment of maintenance in terms of the Matrimonial Causes Act [Chapter 5:13]

Divorce in an Unregistered Customary Law Union

An unregistered customary law union is not given full recognition under the law as a marriage; therefore, there is no “divorce” through the courts as in the other types of marriage. “Divorce” in the sense of the word is achieved by following customary traditions. A rejection token is given to the spouse as a sign that the other wants to dissolve the marriage. The token has to be in the form of money. It does not matter whether it is a coin or note.

As unregistered customary law unions are still not recognized as marriages except for certain limited purposes, the provisions of section 7 of the Matrimonial Causes Act, [Chapter 5:13] regarding distribution of property do not apply to them. Section 11(b) (iv) of the Magistrates Court Act [Chapter 7:10] which accords jurisdiction to the Magistrates’ Court to adjudicate over divorce cases of persons married in terms of the Customary Marriages Act, [Chapter 5:07] equally has no application to unregistered customary unions.

As the marriage is not dissolved through the courts, in the absence of an agreement between the parties, the distribution of property may be done unfairly. One party (usually the husband) takes most of the property while the other party is left with very little or with nothing. One may seek for assistance from the court in cases where the union fits the requirements under common law of a tacit universal partnership. However, there is a bigger burden of proof than in the other types of marriage to prove that you are entitled to the property.

Tacit Universal Partnership

There is no formal divorce in a universal partnership. Under common law once two cohabiting partners decide to go their separate ways, that will be the end of the partnership or relationship. The universal partnership is a useful mechanism created by the courts to allow a cohabitee to share in assets at dissolution of the relationship. This is a useful remedy for distribution of property for spouses in an unregistered customary law union.

For example, in a situation where you own a house and have a boyfriend or girlfriend living in the house, at dissolution that person will have no claim to the equity in the house, unless a universal partnership can be proven. That person may however be able to enforce his or her rights as a tenant. In a situation where both partners assisted in the acquisition of the property that they shared during their term of living together, the court looks at a number of factors before sharing the property.

A universal partnership will exist if the following are present:

(a) Each of the partners brings something into the partnership;

(b) The business or acquisition of property is carried on for the joint benefit of the parties;

(c) The object of the partnership should be to make a profit;

(d) The contract should be a legitimate one. (In a universal partnership the acquisition of property does not require an express agreement. Like any other contract it can also come into existence by tacit agreement, that is by an agreement derived from the conduct of the parties)

Custody upon Divorce

The issue of custody is handled in the same way regardless of the type of marriage or union being dissolved. In making an award for custody upon divorce the court is guided by the principle of what is “in the best interests of the minor children”. This power is granted to the court in terms of s 10 (1) of the Matrimonial Causes Act [Chapter 5:13]. The provision mandates the court to conduct an inquiry and commit children of the marriage into the custody of the parent best suited to have such custody.

The Supreme Court in the case of Hackim vs. Hackim 1988 (2) ZLR 61 defined what is meant by the term ‘best interest of the child’. In determining what is the best interest of a minor the court considers all the circumstances and every aspect of the child’s upbringing that is age, sex, health, education, religious needs, social and financial position of each parent and his and her character, temperament and behavior towards the minor child.

Usually the court will grant custody of the minor child to the mother but that is not always the case. A father can only get custody of children if he can show that it would be in the best interest of the children that he should have custody instead of the mother. Usually he has to prove that the mother is unfit to take care of the child, whether it is because of her temperament and behaviour toward the child or her social position.

Access

The law of Zimbabwe stipulates that the non-custodian parent should have reasonable access to the children. The nature and extent of such access is a matter of the court’s discretion.. The court is inclined to ensure that the bond between the children and the non-custodian parent remains strong.

Maintenance

Under common law spouses are under a reciprocal duty to support each other. This duty arises where a spouse shows that they are not in a position to maintain themselves and therefore need assistance from their former spouse. The spouse claiming maintenance must satisfy the court that they are unable to look after themselves and require assistance from their former spouse. In the case of Chamba vs. Chamba 1992 (2) ZLR 197 the court stated that “marriage can no longer be seen as providing women a bread ticket for life. A marriage certificate is not a guarantee of maintenance after the marriage has been dissolved”. In a case where a spouse has been looking after themselves since separation and he or she is still young and is not disabled in any way, and earns a reasonable income then maintenance will not be granted.


References

  1. ,[1], DIVORCE PROCEDURE IN ZIMBABWE [PART TWO], Published:February 26, 2018 , Retrieved: 13 March 2018