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Can You Secretly Divorce Your Spouse?

In an interesting story out of New York City this past week, a woman who is 59 years old, is suing her husband, who is 90 years old, after being married for over 20 years, after he secretly divorced her, just a few short months after they were initially married. The reason the husband claims to have divorced his wife was to “protect his assets.” The wife has filed a lawsuit to determine that the divorce is “null and void,” as she was unaware of any divorce proceedings. The wife alleges that her husband is using the “illegal and fraudulent” divorce to rob her.

According to the New York Post, after four months of marriage, the husband secretly arranged for a divorce in the Dominican Republic. The wife in her lawsuit claims there was “fraud” involved and that she never knew nor did she ever consent to the divorce. Neither party ever lived in the Dominican Republic. If the divorce is not legal, than the parties are still legally married. At stake, among other assets of the parties, is a $1.4 million Manhattan condo at West 55th street, in the heart of New York City.

So, the question is can someone secretly get a divorce, without the other spouse knowing about it, which would deprive them of their right to the marital estate or spousal support, after a long term marriage? While I can’t speak to the law in the state of New York, I can as to the state of the law here in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, you cannot obtain a divorce without proper legal notice to your spouse. The law requires personal service of the divorce papers on the other spouse. If the other spouse cannot be located, which periodically happens, the process server is required to make reasonable attempts at personal service and provide due diligence in locating the other spouse. In the event that the process server has made reasonable attempts and the spouse still cannot be located, in that event only, the law allows one to resort to what is called “substituted service.” The process server will provide an affidavit of non-found. The Petitioner (the person who filed the divorce), is than legally obligated to publish notice of the divorce in a community newspaper and to mail the divorce papers to their spouse’s last known address. Only after all of these things are accomplished, to the court’s satisfaction, can a person proceed with a divorce.

Another legal issue that would face someone attempting to get a divorce in another state or country is “residency.” As an example, you cannot file for divorce in Wisconsin, unless you have been a bona resident of the state for the last 6 months as well the county you are filing the divorce case in over the last 30 days.
One would assume that other states or going outside of the United States, would not allow someone to obtain a “quickie divorce,” without having lived there, for some period of time as prescribed by law.

While the New York case is interesting reading, this could not arguably happen in the state of Wisconsin. With the requirement of residency and notice to the other party, one cannot obtain a “secret divorce” from their spouse to avoid having to divide up their estate or pay their support obligations. It will be interesting to watch what happens to the New York couple in the wife’s lawsuit against her husband, but if I were a betting man, I would say that the court finds in favor of the wife and determines that the Dominican Republic divorce was and is a “complete sham!”

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