Family Law

Divorce in a Different State or Country

By Lina Guillen, Attorney
Filing for divorce in one state or country while your spouse lives in another can complicate your case.

State Residency Requirements to File for Divorce

If you've decided to file for divorce, you don't have to return to the state that issued your marriage license. In fact, that court will refuse to hear your case if you no longer live in the state. Instead, you must file for divorce in the state where you live.

Each state has it's own residency requirement, meaning you must live there for a certain amount of time before you can file for divorce. In Missouri, for example, you must be a resident for at least 90 days before you can file for divorce: Oregon requires a minimum of six months, and in New Jersey, you must be a resident for at least 12 consecutive months. You can prove your residency with a state-issued driver's license, a copy of your lease, copy of utility bills in your name, or a voter registration card.

States Usually Recognize Court Orders From Other States

Most states recognize court orders and official documents issued by other states. For example, if Alabama issues you a driver's license, you can use it to drive in any state. Likewise, if you get divorced in one state, the final divorce decree will usually be recognized in all other states, although there are some exceptions. No state will recognize an interstate divorce if you failed to properly notify your spouse of the proceedings by filing and serving your original divorce petition or serving your spouse via publication. If you have children or own property in a state that doesn't recognize your divorce, the state might refuse to enforce a property settlement agreement or child custody order.

Only the Issuing Court Can Change a Divorce Decree

If you now live in another state, that new jurisdiction will generally be willing to enforce the terms of your divorce decree, as long as your ex-spouse is given proper notice of the proceedings. However, if your ex objects to the new state hearing the enforcement motion, you may end up in a fight over which state has the authority to decide the matter.

If you want to request a change to the terms of your divorce decree, such as asking the court to set aside the original property judgment and award you additional assets, you'll have to return to the state that granted your divorce to make that request.

Not All Foreign Divorces Are Recognized in the United States

Many divorcing spouses who want to avoid the time and expense associated with the U.S. family court system have been tempted to travel to a foreign country and get a "quickie" divorce. And of those who've done so, many have been surprised to learn that most states in the U.S. don't automatically recognize a foreign divorce decree.

Today, the Dominican Republic is a top destination for East Coast spouses looking for a quick divorce. Even though it may be faster and less expensive than a U.S. divorce, the Dominican Republican—like all other foreign countries—has it's own set of requirements, which must be met before it will issue divorce decrees to foreign nationals, including:

  • both spouses must sign a marital settlement agreement that covers property division, custody, and spousal support
  • one spouse must appear in person at the Domincan divorce hearing—the other spouse can appear through an appointed agent or local attorney
  • if the judge grants the divorce, the court's ruling must be certified by the Dominican attorney general’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and
  • the final divorce decree must be published in a national Dominican newspaper.

If you obtain a divorce from the Dominican Republic, or any other foreign country, you'll need to make sure that a U.S. court will recognize it, which depends on your state's laws regarding international divorce judgments. State laws vary, but generally, before a state will recognize a foreign divorce, the spouse residing in the U.S. must have received proper notice of the foreign divorce proceedings. Beyond that, state rules will determine whether the foreign divorce is valid.

In the majority of states, including California, the rule is that in addition to proper notice, at least one spouse must be a resident of the foreign country before a state will recognize a foreign divorce.

In a minority of states, including New York, neither party needs to reside in the foreign country—or to have lived there for any period of time—in order for the foreign divorce to be considered valid. And if the divorce was mutual—both spouses consented to it and signed a divorce settlement agreement—it will be difficult to attack the foreign divorce decree in a New York court.

A Divorce Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding divorce across state lines and international borders is complicated. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. If you have specific questions, you should contact an experienced divorce attorney in your area.

Questions for Your Attorney

  1. I obtained a divorce and received full custody of my children when I lived in California. As part of the order, I was granted permission to move to Oregon with the kids. My ex stopped paying child support three months ago: Do I have to travel back to California (where he lives) to enforce that order?
  2. I want to file for divorce, but my spouse moved out of state and hasn't sent me a forwarding address. How should I proceed?
  3. My spouse went to Mexico and got a divorce judgment against me, but I don't think that's valid in my state, what can I do about it?

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