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Fujuri todoke: a valuable insurance policy if your marriage is on the rocks

by Mikiko Otani

A reader asks: “What is the name of the form used to ‘block’ a kyōgi rikon (divorce by mutual consent) proceeding? Do they have these forms at the local city office or do you have to go to a lawyer’s office and have them prepared?”

Under Japanese law, a divorce can be finalized by mutual consent. This consent-based divorce is called kyōgi rikon and the process is very simple: Both parties fill in a form known as a rikon todoke (divorce notification paper), which is available at any city hall; they sign the form; two witnesses also sign; and the form is then submitted to the city hall.

The courts have no role in this process. The husband and wife don’t need to swear or even appear before a city registrar. One of the parties or even a third person can bring the signed divorce paper to the city hall, or it can be submitted by mail. This simple and cost-free process is popular, accounting for roughly 90 percent of divorces registered every year in Japan.

Although kyōgi rikon is convenient for couples who reach agreement on the need to divorce, you should remember some important points. First, a kyōgi rikon becomes effective and the parties are legally divorced as soon as the divorce paper is accepted by city hall. If you sign a divorce paper but change your mind, you can block the kyōgi rikon before it is accepted by submitting a fujuri todoke (request not to accept notification).

Second, the family registry officer’s only obligation is to check that all the necessary information on the form has been provided and there are stamps from the husband, wife and two witnesses before accepting the paper. In the case of a foreign spouse, a signature will do instead of a stamp.

Forging a signature and submitting a false divorce paper to city authorities is of course a crime, and if forgery were to be proven, the kyōgi rikon would be rendered invalid. However, in practice, a divorce paper is likely to be accepted even if one party has not given consent and his/her signature has been forged.

Ironically, once a divorce has been accepted and noted in the family register, to invalidate it and restore one’s married status, a court needs to issue an annulment decision, and the burden to initiate legal proceedings rests with the victim. Therefore, if you have any reason to worry that your spouse might forge your signature and file a rikon todoke without your knowledge, you should consider submitting a fujuri todoke to block it pre-emptively.

A third, extremely important factor to consider is that the rikon todoke form has a section where the couple designates which parent will have shinken (parental authority) over any minor children from the marriage. There is no system of joint parental custody under Japanese law, meaning either the father or mother gains sole parental authority over any children upon divorce. Unless the couple agrees on who gets parental authority, they cannot divorce by kyōgi rikon, as the decision over parental authority needs to be made at the time of divorce and recorded on the rikon todoke.

Some foreigners have been known to agree to divorce, sign the divorce paper but leave the parental authority section blank, wrongly believing that custody issues will be discussed later. Signing a divorce paper without realizing the legal consequences in terms of parental authority could potentially rob a parent of their rights regarding their children, so the importance of this cannot be overstressed.

Fujuri todoke forms can be found at the family registry section of any local city office. Unlike the kyōgi rikon papers, this document must be submitted in person, so make sure you take identification such as a passport with you to city hall. A family registry officer will help you fill in the form. You should make a copy for your own records before submitting the document.

Some 700 cases for annulment of kyōgi rikon are filed in family courts every year, according to Justice Ministry statistics. Foreigners, in particular those with “spouse of Japanese national” visas, are especially at risk of finding themselves divorced and even vulnerable to deportation due to a falsified kyōgi rikon filed by their Japanese spouse. The simple act of submitting a fujuri todoke will protect you against such an predicament if you have even the slightest concern about your spouse’s intentions. Fujiri todoke will only be accepted in cases were one or both of the parties are Japanese nationals.

If you submit a fujuri todoke but later agree with your spouse to divorce (including on who gets parental authority over any children), you first need to go to city hall in person with identification to withdraw the fujuri todoke.

If you no longer reside in Japan, you should visit a Japanese consulate, making sure to take identification with you. If that is not practical, you would need to consult a Japanese lawyer for advice on how to withdraw the fujuri todoke before you can move forward with your divorce.

Mikiko Otani is an attorney with the Foreigners and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving foreigners in the Tokyo area (www.t-pblo.jp/fiss) Phone: (03) 6809-6200. Send your questions to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp.