Although not as common as they used to be, ex parte foreign divorces are still an issue. By ex parte, we mean the court only had jurisdiction over one party. Back before New York eased, to some degree, its divorce laws, people found it easier to go to Nevada or Mexico to get a divorce. Typically, one party would go and it get. Since the court only had jurisdiction over the person before it, the divorce was â€œex parteâ€ (one party.) The New York courts were very concerned about this type of divorces, since with only one party showing up, there was a good chance that an injustice could be wrought on the absent spouse.
An ex parte foreign divorce where there was no service or appearance by the other party is generally void. In Matter of Levi, NYLJ Volume 215 Number 52 (Nassau County Surrogate 1996), the court recognized the long settled principle that ex parte foreign divorces are void. Surrogate Radigan found that the decedent and his first wife were not domiciled in the Dominican Republic at the time of the divorce. â€œUnder the circumstances, the Dominican divorce is void where it is at best an ex parte foreign divorce decree.â€
The foreign court must obtain jurisdiction over the proponent of the divorce as well as the absent spouse. In cases where a divorce has been obtained without any personal contact with the jurisdiction by either party or by physical submission to the jurisdiction by one, with no personal service of process within the foreign jurisdiction upon, and no appearance or submission by, the other, decision has been against the validity of the foreign decree. Rosenstiel v. Rosenstiel, 16 N.Y.2d 64, 209 N.E.2d 709 (1965). In Maltese, the court found that the sole purpose of the wife’s trip to Mexico was to get the divorce.
it is clear that defendant’s appearance in Mexico was for the sole purpose of participating in the divorce proceeding, not for the purpose of residing there; she remained at all times a resident and domiciliary of New York State. As was said in the Rosenbaum case, supra, ‘Thus under comity as contrasted with full faith and credit our courts have power to deny even prima facie validity to the judgments of foreign countries for policy reasons, despite whatever allegations of jurisdiction may appear on the face of such foreign judgments. * * * The recognition of a foreign county judgment is far less certain, the judgment itself is far more assailable and vulnerable, than sister state judgments and is subject to a test of policy.’Accordingly, plaintiff is entitled to a judgment declaring the Mexican divorce decree null and void,
Similarly, Surrogate Preminger found that a Mexican divorce was void where the decedent was not a domiciliary of Mexico , Matter of Barton, NYLJ Volume 222, Number 13 (N.Y. Surrogate Court 1999).
When a divorce decree is void, either party may attack it. Further, the party who obtained the divorce is not prevented from attacking it’s validity. See Marum v. Marum, 8 A.D.2d 975, 190 N.Y.S.2d 812 (2nd Dept 1959).
The Domestic Relations Law, section 236B(2) specifically grants the court jurisdiction to determine issues of property distribution upon a foreign divorce.
Matrimonial actions. Except as provided in subdivision five of this part, the provisions of this part shall be applicable to actions for an annulment or dissolution of a marriage, for a divorce, for a separation, for a declaration of the nullity of a void marriage, for a declaration of the validity or nullity of a foreign judgment of divorce, for a declaration of the validity or nullity of a marriage, and to proceedings to obtain maintenance or a distribution of marital property following a foreign judgment of divorce, commenced on and after the effective date of this part. Any application which seeks a modification of a judgment, order or decree made in an action commenced prior to the effective date of this part shall be heard and determined in accordance with the provisions of part A of this section.
While a divorce granted by a foreign sister is accorded full faith and credit, “[i]t is equally well settled, however, that a valid ex parte foreign divorce terminates only the marital status of the parties. Such a divorce is ‘divisible’ in that it has no effect upon the property held by the parties outside the jurisdiction of the state issuing the judgment.” Peterson v. Goldberg, 180 A.D.2d 260, 585 N.Y.S.2d 439 (2nd Dept 1992). See Vanderbilt v. Vanderbilt, 354 U.S. 416, 77 S.Ct. 1360 (1957) (Ex parte judgments from a foreign sister state resolving issues of support and property are not granted full faith and credit). “An ex parte foreign divorced decree is entitled to recognition to the extent of determining the marital status, though not to the extent of affecting personal rights stemming from the marital relationship such as property and custodial issues…” Matter of Childers, NYLJ Volume 222 Number 112 (New York County Surrogate’s Court, 1999).
The court in Mattwell v. Mattwell, 194 A.D.2d 715, 600 N.Y.S.2d 90 (2nd Dept 1993) explained that the purpose of DRL § 236(B)(2) & (5) was to address the divisible nature of foreign divorces. Accordingly, to provide for the distribution of property not affected by a foreign judgment of divorce, Domestic Relations Law § 236B(2) and (5) provide that a divorced spouse who possesses an interest in marital property within this state may commence an action for equitable distribution of property… The court has the power to convert an action into one for equitable distribution following the entry of a foreign divorce. Peterson v. Goldberg, 180 A.D.2d 260, 585 N.Y.S.2d 439 (2nd Dept 1992).
Therefore, in the case of valid ex parte foreign divorces the court has the power and authority under DRL 236B(2) and (5) to proceed to address and determine the issues of equitable distribution, custody, support and visitation.
Sometimes its not that easy to determine if a divorce is ex part. For example, assume that the couple is from the Dominican Republic. Both are legally in the United States, and residents of New York. Both are also still citizens of the Dominican Republic. Assume that one of the spouses goes back to the DR and obtains a legal and valid divorce and the other spouse remained in New York. Was it ex part or not? There would be an argument either way. At present I’m not aware of any case addressing this issue.
Therefore, let prudence be your guide and avoid any appearance of an ex-parte divorce. If you are looking for a divorce and you live in New York, consult a New York divorce lawyer. If you are looking for a quick solution, you might find that you have severely prejudiced your rights.