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Foreign State Divorces and Equitable Distribution

by / 0 Comments / 195 View / November 25, 2007

Foreign divorces can be very tricky, and ultimately very dangerous for the unwary. The problem is that under the New York divorce law, all issues between man and wife must be settled in the divorce. Any issue not resolved or raised is waived.

 

For example, let’s assume that the divorce papers are silent as to the marital home. Nothing is mentioned about how the house will be disposed of, and there is no provision for who will take the house. After the divorce, the parties fight and now one of the wants to force a sale and get his interest. Under New York law, when co-owners of a piece of property can’t get along, there is legal proceeding called a “partition”. If the ex-spouse tries to bring a partition action here, he will be told that he had his chance in the divorce, and now the New York courts are closed to him.

 

This is a fairly harsh rule, but it is New York divorce law. Any issue of equitable distribution not raised is waived forever. It can never be revisited.

 

This rule has a serious impact on foreign divorces. By foreign divorces, I mean a divorce from either a sister state or foreign country.

 

The issue of a New Jersey divorce was recently examined by Judicial Hearing Officer Stanley Gartenstein in the case of Ottomanelli v. Ottomanelli, decided on September 17, 2007.

 

The husband, who had established residence in New Jersey, commenced a no-fault divorce there. The court found jurisdiction over both the husband and the wife, although the wife was still a New York resident, living on Long Island.

 

The court’s divorce decree made no reference either to equitable distribution or maintenance.

The husband, having secured the divorce in his home state, returned to Long Island and commenced an action for equitable distribution. His action was dismissed.

 

JHO Gartenstein found that the New Jersey divorce was final and could not be amended.

 

He found that once the court has acquired jurisdiction over both parties, it had the power to decide all issues regarding the marriage and divorce and therefore he was without authority that amend that decision and made a property distribution.

 

In support of his decision, JHO Gartenstein cited the New York Court of Appeals case of O‘Connell v. Corcoran, 1 NY3rd 179, which involved a Vermont divorce. In that case, the wife appeared before the Vermont court and stated that no application would be made for an equitable distribution award as all the assets were in New York. The Vermont court issued a final judgment of divorce without contest and made no other awards. The wife then started an action in New York for equitable distribution. The Court of Appeals would not allow such an action. It found that the issues were before the Vermont court and the failure of the court to render an award, for whatever reason, ended the matter.

 

Following the holding of O’Connell, JHO Gartenstein dismissed the husband’s action for equitable distribution, as it should have been raised in New Jersey. The failure to raise the issue waived it.

 

This rule also applies to divorces from other countries. In DeGanay v. DeGanay 261 AD2d 175, a bilateral divorce in France was also viewed as final.

 

This rule only applies to “bilateral” divorces, that is divorces where the court has jurisdiction over both parties. When the court does not have jurisdiction over both parties, it is an ex parte divorce. In an ex parte divorce, the issue of equitable distribution remains alive. Ex parte divorces are a large and somewhat complicated area, and I’ll address it in another posting. Just remember for this posting, that if the court has jurisdiction over both parties, its a real good idea to address all issues of the divorce. If you “leave something for later” you’ll find that you’ve waived your rights.

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