You have probably heard of people jetting off to the Caribbean to get married. But did you know, you can also legally divorce in a foreign country, no matter where you happen to be located right now?
A vinculo matrimonii is a Latin term literally meaning “from the chains of matrimony.” It has come to mean a complete and final divorce, as opposed to a legal separation.With up to half of all marriages in the western world ending in divorce, nearly all of us find ourselves at some time dealing with either our own divorce or that of a close family member or friend. Divorce is frequently a tragedy for all concerned, but it can be also be an opportunity for positive change and a fresh start. A speedy, amicable, affordable, and legally valid decree of divorce from a foreign country may well be ‘just what the doctor ordered.’
The idea of offshore divorces is relatively new to most people in the western world. When it comes to divorce, it’s always been a matter of “Do-As You-Are-Told” by a local lawyer, whose main purpose is to drag out the process for as long as possible in order to extract from you the highest possible fees!
In many US jurisdictions you have to wait 30-90 days or even up to two years. This is even if both parties approach the divorce mutually agreeing to it, without any fuss or fanfare – and that’s also after all the financial wheeling and dealing!
Elsewhere, things are even worse. In Ireland you have to wait four years at an absolute minimum. In the Philippines, you can simply never ever get divorced!
The Origins of “Quickie” Divorces
Mexico can be credited with inventing the “quickie” foreign divorce business. The jet-set of the fifties and sixties frequently flew to Acapulco to obtain fast divorces. Later Tabasco, the smallest state in Mexico, made a brief foray into the offshore divorce business.
However, all that is ancient history. Amendments to the Mexican Nationality and Naturalization Law which took effect in March 1971 require that an alien be a legal resident of Mexico before he or she may apply for a Mexican divorce. Becoming a legal resident is a rather complicated, time-consuming process, taking several months. Because of these restrictions, few foreigners will find it practical to attempt a Mexican divorce.
Incredibly, even though Mexican quickie divorces were stopped in the 1970s, we have found people as of 2006 still offering them for sale on the internet. This is a scam of which potential divorcees should be forewarned.
Fast Divorces on the Island of Hispaniola
Today, the fastest divorces in the Western Hemisphere are to be found a short flight from Miami, Florida – on the island of Hispaniola, just next to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
In 1971, just a few months after religious interests caused the Mexican congress effectively to knock on the head the Mexican “quickie divorce” business which had grown popular during the 1960s, an enterprising Mexican lawyer persuaded lawmakers in the Dominican Republic to pass law #142 allowing por vapor instant divorces for non-residents. Not to be outdone, in 1974 the Republic of Haiti (the Dominican Republic’s smaller neighbour on the island of Hispaniola) passed similar laws, that are in fact even more ‘user friendly.’
This type of divorce has become popularly known as the ‘VIP Divorce’, because over the years numerous celebrities and thousands of other famous people have taken advantage of these liberal divorce laws. To name a few, in no particular order: Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, George Scott, Mike Tyson, Robin Givens, Richard Burton, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, Diana Ross, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Marc Anthony, and Tommy Mottola (the former president of Sony records).
Yes, sure these people have money. But Caribbean divorces don’t have to cost as much as you might expect! They are becoming more and more popular with ordinary citizens – and above all with global citizen families, who may well have roots in more than one jurisdiction already.
Dominican Republic v Haiti
Today, despite its ups and downs, the Dominican Republic is a successful economy and a pleasant country to visit, boasting a highly developed tourist sector. Therefore, it’s preferable to divorce in the Dominican Republic where possible. Haiti, in contrast, is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and much less stable – though of course that doesn’t make its laws any less valid.
The big difference between the two is that in the Dominican Republic, mutual consent is required. The defendant spouse doesn’t have to travel there, but will be required to appear in person to sign papers agreeing to the divorce in a Dominican consulate elsewhere in the world.
In Haiti, however, unilateral divorce is allowed. This is useful where spousal consent cannot be obtained for whatever reason, but a divorce is required for remarriage, business purposes or simply for a fresh start. The process requires public notices in Haiti informing the spouse of the impending action, following which a default judgement granting the divorce is issued if no reply is received within twenty-one days.
Recognition by Other Jurisdictions
As you might already have guessed, the big question on most people’s minds is whether this type of offshore divorce will be legally recognised in their home countries, or wherever else they need it to be recognised.
Unfortunately, this is also one of the most difficult questions to answer. But in a few words, the answer is generally positive! Here’s why…
First of all, “offshore” divorce is perfectly legal. No doubt about that. There is no law we know of anywhere in the world that prohibits people from going to another country and getting divorced.
Whether it is accepted where you live depends in practice on whether anyone disputes it. It’s a fact that worldwide, more than 99.9% of divorces are never disputed. The only person who is likely to dispute the divorce would be your spouse. Most people obtain their spouse’s written consent – and then the spouse is precluded from disputing it later by the legal principle of estoppel. Estoppel is defined in my law dictionary as a bar to alleging or denying a fact because of one’s own previous contrary actions or words.
In the USA, courts in many states (for example New York) specifically accept international divorces. Courts in most others accept them on a case-by-case basis under the principle of comity. The Social Security Administration and the Veterans Administration are other departments that specifically accept and recognize international divorces. The State Department authorizes and requires US consulates abroad to legalize foreign divorce decrees by granting “full faith and credit” to the signatures of foreign courts. Such legalizations are issued routinely by American embassies in the case of the Caribbean divorces.
It should be said, however, that some US states (amongst them most significantly California) specifically do not recognise foreign divorces. (That even includes Nevada divorces). Of course, this law was passed in the public interest, and has nothing to do with greedy Californian lawyers wanting all the action for themselves!
In England and Wales, the recognition of an overseas divorce is governed by Part II of the Family Law Act 1986. Section 51(c) of that act allows the English court to refuse to recognise an overseas divorce as valid if such recognition would be ‘manifestly contrary to public policy.’ Courts are also granted discretion to refuse recognition if the divorce was obtained without notice to the other party, which could be applicable to Haitian divorces.
A quick check shows that this English law has never been tested in the courts. So, although it would seem the English courts have some discretion to refuse recognition of foreign divorces, we can also see that in twenty years not one of the thousands of British citizens who have obtained Caribbean divorces has had any legal problem in England because of it. I rest my case!
The courts of Hispaniola provide, in many cases, an excellent opportunity to break free from the chains of matrimony, bypassing tortuously slow divorce procedures in other countries which can both financially and emotionally taxing. A few days can indeed mean a fresh start in life. However, this article was intended only as a brief introduction to a complex subject. It’s very important that you take appropriate professional advice and read around this subject before taking any action that could posibly lead to unintented legal consequences.