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The Ultimate Deceit: A Secret Divorce

By: Dana Horlick, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

Imagine after being happily married to your spouse for 20 years, you find out he or she filed for a divorce shortly after your marriage. Not only did they file for a divorce without saying a word to you, but they did so in a different country. Your spouse didn’t just go down to the courthouse here in Guilford County; they went to the Dominican Republic. Your first reaction will likely be shock and a sense of betrayal. What next? Consulting an experienced divorce attorney to determine your rights and the next steps to take.

Although the plotline above sounds surreal, that is what allegedly happened to Cristina in New York. Cristina met and married Gabriel back in 1994. Over the 20 years of their marriage, they traveled together, raised a child together, and Cristina even quit her job as a professor to spend more time with Gabriel. Unbeknownst to Cristina, four months after their marriage, Gabriel filed for a divorce in the Dominican Republic. Gabriel cited incompatibility of temperaments as the reason for the divorce and even hired an attorney to represent each side.

Stop and consider that for a second. Not only did Gabriel seek a divorce four months into the marriage, he even hired an attorney to represent her for the divorce– all without saying a word about this to his wife.  Then he spends almost 20 years with her at his side, and at his bedside while he was ill, pretending to be in a loving, happy, and caring marriage. That behavior is a level of deceit that is difficult to imagine – being willing and able to go 20 years without saying a word about the divorce proceedings to his loving wife.

Cristina found out about the divorce after receiving a tax bill for their Manhattan apartment that did not have her name on it. She hired an attorney to investigate. It turns out that Gabriel had tried to remove her name from the deed, using the divorce proceeding in the Dominican Republic as proof that she was not an owner of the property.

Cristina has claimed that Gabriel sought a divorce to protect his assets and was motivated by greed. She has also claimed that the divorce isn’t legal in the Dominican Republic because neither Cristina nor Gabriel appeared in court and the separation was not published in a newspaper, as required by Dominican law. Cristina is now suing Gabriel in an attempt to nullify the divorce, and to stop him from selling the apartment they shared.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals recognized, back in 1984, that there was a need for a precise ruling concerning divorces granted in foreign countries. The Court held that divorces granted in foreign countries to residents of the United States are not valid and are not enforceable. Mayer v. Mayer, 66 N.C. App. 522 (1984). The fact pattern of this case dealt specifically with a divorce granted in the Dominican Republic. It appears that people have been heading down to the Dominican Republic for a divorce for quite some time.

If the same set of facts alleged above in Cristina’s situation had occurred to a couple in North Carolina, this would be a much easier decision for the Court as our Court of Appeals has already dealt with the same situation and determined that the divorce was invalid.  Although this is a less probable set of facts, there are other, more common fact patterns that most couples wouldn’t even begin to contemplate happening in their marriage. These can include cheating, hiding of assets, secreting away of assets, and many others. The difficult situations that can arise during divorce proceedings or marriage, in general, are one compelling reason to consult an experienced family law and divorce attorney.