International Divorce and Comity

International divorce cases may require recognition or enforcement in your home country. But when your international divorce decree is subject to dismissal for lack of jurisdiction though, it is not a laughing matter. That is where knowing about the concept of comity may help.

Divorce Comity

Comity Hour

Carmen filed her divorce in Nebraska, claiming she and her husband Arlin were married in Omaha, had no children, that her husband was a Nebraska resident and that she is “not now a party to any other pending action for divorce, separation or dissolution of marriage.” Carmen wanted a divorce to divide their property and debts.

Carmen’s husband tried to dismiss the divorce for lack of jurisdiction. While he admitted they got married in Nebraska on March 8, 2003, he said they were also married in Venezuela on March 11, 2003.

The punchline: they were already legally divorced in Venezuela.

Since they were no longer legally married, the husband asked the court to dismiss the divorce for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and other grounds.

Florida Divorce and Comity

I have written about international divorce issues before. In Florida, a person must have resided in Florida for 6 months before the filing of the petition for the court to have jurisdiction over your divorce. The term “reside” generally means a legal residence in Florida with an intention to stay there, as opposed to a temporary residence.

However, when children are involved, or you are seeking financial assistance, such as alimony, child support, or a division of property, the court needs to have jurisdiction over your spouse too.

There are even more complex, multi-state laws which impact if a court can hear a divorce, the children’s issues, or the family support issues.

Recognizing a foreign divorce is different. In general, where courts in one country have concurrent jurisdiction over substantially similar parties and claims, the court which first exercises its jurisdiction acquires exclusive jurisdiction to proceed with that divorce. This is known as the principle of priority.

While the principle of priority is not a duty, as a matter of comity, courts may stay a pending divorce on the grounds that a case involving the same subject matter and parties is pending in the court of another U.S. state. But the principle of comity applies – not only to proceedings pending in two different U.S. state courts – but to divorce cases pending in foreign courts too.

Comity Isn’t Pretty

Back in Nebraska, the parties focused their arguments exclusively on whether the Venezuelan divorce decree should be recognized as valid in Nebraska under principles of comity.

The family court dismissed Carmen’s complaint with prejudice, stating: The question before the Court is whether the Venezuelan Decree is valid. On that issue, Carmen argued the Venezuelan decree was invalid and she was therefore entitled to seek a decree of dissolution in Nebraska.

Arlin, on the other hand, argued the Venezuelan decree was valid in Nebraska and the parties were already legally divorced, so the Nebraska dissolution action should be dismissed. The family court agreed with the husband and found the Venezuelan decree was valid in Nebraska. The Wife appealed.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska reversed. The court reasoned that the husband’s evidence did not show the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the divorce. As long as the trial court had met the basic requirements, it had jurisdiction.

The family court confused the doctrine of comity with subject matter jurisdiction. The doctrine of priority is not the same thing as subject matter jurisdiction. A subsequent court does not lack the judicial power over a divorce. The issue of whether a foreign divorce decree should be recognized, the principle of comity, is not a matter of subject matter jurisdiction – or grounds for dismissal.

Whether the Venezuelan divorce decree is entitled to recognition under principles of comity was still a contested issue in the divorce, and that issue did not impact the family court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska opinion is here.

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