Marriage and divorce are highly regulated by state law. Since each state has the authority to enact laws governing divorce, there is a substantial amount of variation from one jurisdiction to the next. But what happens when a married couple lives in one jurisdiction and pursues a divorce in another? How do the courts handle such a situation? Which state has the authority to dissolve the marriage? Like most family law matters, it usually depends on the facts and circumstances surrounding the case. No matter what the facts are, if you are considering a divorce, you are encouraged to consult with an experienced family law attorney who is fully aware of the local laws and court rules affecting your case.
A recent divorce case invoked the family law statutes of both California and Guam. Here, the couple entered into a marital settlement agreement in California in 2011. A month later, a court in Guam issued a judgment of divorce and a final decree. According to the judgment, the matter had been uncontested, and the court had jurisdiction based on the husband’s residency in Guam for seven days. The wife had consented to the case being heard as a “default matter.” The court further approved the terms of the marital settlement agreement and ordered the parties to adhere to it. Despite these proceedings, the wife filed a petition to dissolve the marriage in 2013 in California. The husband moved to quash the action based on the 2011 final judgment of divorce entered by the court in Guam.
The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the divorce petition. The wife appealed, arguing that the Guamanian divorce was void because both parties were living (“domiciled”) in California at the time and that it was obtained by fraud. The court of appeals pointed out that California has adopted the Uniform Divorce Recognition Act, codified at Sections 2090-2093 of the state family code. Essentially, the statute provides that “[a] divorce obtained in another jurisdiction shall be of no force or effect in this state if both parties to the marriage were domiciled in this state at the time the proceeding for the divorce was commenced.”
The statute, however, limits the reach of section 2091 by providing that the Constitution of the United States mandates “that full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.” In California, courts generally accord full faith and credit to a divorce that has been recognized as valid in the state in which it was originally granted. The court reviewed the underlying facts and the relevant portions of Guamanian law, and it determined that Guam properly adjudicated the couple’s divorce. Therefore, the court upheld that trial court’s decision to afford full faith and credit to the Guamanian divorce decree. The court also affirmed the decision to dismiss the fraud allegations, pointing out that the husband denied them, claimed that his wife willingly participated in the proceedings, and later held himself out as a divorced person.
While this is an unpublished decision, and parties may not rely on or cite to it in future cases, the underlying reasoning could certainly inform a court in a later proceeding. This case clearly illustrates the complicated nature of the interplay between two states’ divorce laws and the importance of understanding how the statutes could affect your case’s outcome. Roy M. Doppelt is a knowledgable divorce lawyer who has been representing parties in family law matters for more than 20 years. Doppelt & Forney serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt & Forney through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
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