Can You Get a 'Secret Divorce'?

By: Dave Roos
One day married, next day free? There's really no such thing as a secret divorce. Mofles/RayaHristova/Thinkstock

Gabriel Villa allegedly did a very bad thing. According to a New York Post article, the Manhattan lawyer and travel agent secretly divorced his wife only months after their 1994 marriage to protect his money. By "secret divorce", we mean that he filed for divorce without telling his wife, Cristina Carta Villa. Yup, they continued to live as husband and wife for 20 years, even having a son together. 

Needless to say, Carta Villa is a little upset. The 59-year-old is suing her "husband," now 90 and in poor health, to get the divorce nullified and to maintain ownership of the couple's multimillion-dollar Midtown condo. But will she win, or are "secret divorces" somehow legal?


Not in the United States, says Lina Guillen, a California family lawyer and editor at Nolo, a source for free legal information and publisher of do-it-yourself legal guides.

"In the U.S., there is something called a default divorce," Guillen explains, "which can be granted with just one spouse appearing in court, but these aren't really 'secret divorces.'" The difference is that the spouse asking for divorce must prove that he or she notified the other spouse by serving divorce papers, or else published the divorce filing in the newspaper as a way of notification if the other spouse couldn't be found.

But here's the kicker: Villa didn't file for divorce in the United States. His papers were signed in the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island nation that's notorious for its quickie divorces, known in colorful local parlance as divorcios al vapor.

Mexico used to be the hot spot for quickie divorces. In the States, divorce proceedings can drag on for months and cost thousands of dollars. From the 1940s to the 1960s, enterprising lawyers and judges set up shop right across the Texas and California borders, offering 24-hour divorces at low prices. U.S. courts eventually stopped recognizing these divorces, and Mexico enacted tougher residency requirements in the 1970s. But that didn't curb the demand for fast and cheap divorces. Today, the top destination for eager-to-be-exes is the Dominican Republic, a quick four-hour flight from NYC.

While a Dominican divorce is faster than in the U.S., it's still not a "secret" divorce. At least when it's done right. According to the Embassy of the Dominican Republic and additional information tracked down by Nolo's Guillen, there are several strict requirements for U.S. citizens wishing to obtain a divorcio al vapor:

  • Both spouses must sign a formal separation agreement that details division of assets, child custody and alimony.
  • At least one spouse must be physically present at the divorce hearing in the Dominican Republic. The other spouse can be represented by an agent with power of attorney.
  • If the judge rules in favor of the divorce, the ruling must be certified by the Dominican Republic's attorney general's office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • Finally, the divorce decree must be published in a national Dominican newspaper.

If U.S. citizens follow all of the necessary steps, they can obtain a Dominican divorce in eight to 10 days. But will that divorce be recognized by U.S. courts? It depends where you live. Divorce law is state law, and each state has its own rules. In California, where Guillen practices, at least one of the divorcing spouses must be a resident of the foreign country where the divorce is filed, and that's true in the majority of states.

"But New York follows the minority rule," says Guillen. "Neither party needs to reside in the foreign country or to have lived there for any period of time. New York has a well-established policy of recognizing foreign divorce judgments, and a spouse will have a really hard time attacking a foreign divorce if the divorce was mutual, unless the spouse can show there was some sort of fraud in obtaining the divorce, or that the divorce goes against public policy in New York.” 

Fraud is the keyword in the Villa case. According to Carter Villa, she never knowingly signed any separation agreements, unless her newlywed husband tricked her into doing so. Even if she unwittingly signed something, Carter Villa alleges that Villa wasn't physically present in the Dominican Republic for a hearing and the divorce was never published in a Dominican newspaper, making it invalid in both countries.

Without access to Carter Villa's Manhattan court filings or the divorce documents from the Dominican Republic, it impossible to know the specifics of her case or whether Villa skirted Dominican law to obtain his "secret" divorce. But the takeaway for conniving spouses is clear. If you're that worried about protecting your assets, have your spouse sign a prenup. It's the least scumbaggy thing you can do.