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Will the U.S. recognize a divorce done abroad?

The number of international divorces is increasing worldwide.  Typically, couples facing international divorce are: U.S. nationals where one or both spouses lives abroad, one spouse lives in the United States while the other lives abroad, or both spouses are foreign nationals living in the United States.   In the all three situations, a petitioner likely can file for a divorce proceeding in the United States; however, what happens if the petitioner for divorce files the proceeding abroad?  Will the United States recognize the legitimacy of a foreign divorce?

The short answer: possibly.

Doctrine of Comity

In international law, the doctrine of comity allows nations to mutually recognize the laws, judgments, and acts of foreign countries.  Although this definition is over simplified, it provides a good starting point in determining whether judgments made by foreign countries are enforceable in the United States.  The doctrine of comity, however, does not require foreign nations to recognize such judgments.  The decision to uphold a foreign government’s judgment is up to the discretion of the nation disputing the claim.

For example, if A, a Belgian citizen,  divorced B, a U.S. citizen, in Belgium and B only receives a judgment for one-third of the estate, B may attempt to file for divorce in the United States; however, the U.S. may recognize the legitimacy of  the judgment made in Belgium, thus preventing B from petitioning for divorce in the U.S.  The doctrine of comity is the doctrine that would allow the U.S. to uphold the ruling in Belgium.

In the Supreme Court case Hilton v. Guyot, the court proficiently states the doctrine of comity.  In this case, Guyot, a French citizen, sued Hilton, a U.S. citizen, in French Court.  The French court entered a judgment in favor of Guyot.  Guyot sought to enforce the French judgment and brought the claim to the United States.  “The doctrine of comity,” the court states, “is the recognition which one nation allows within its territory to the legislative, executive or judicial acts of another nation.”  Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 164 (1895).  Similarly, the nation should use the doctrine of comity with “regard both to international duty and convenience, and to the rights of its own citizens.” Id.

Will the United States recognize the legitimacy of a foreign divorce?

Under the doctrine of comity, the United States can recognize foreign divorces and judgments entered by foreign courts.  Because of the complexity of this doctrine and the complexity of international divorce law in general, we strongly advise consulting an experienced attorney.  Please contact us to discuss any questions about international divorce.  We look forward to assisting you.

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