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Worthley v. Worthley

    Brief Fact Summary
    Mrs. Worthley (Plaintiff) sought to recover alimony arrearages in California based on a modifiable divorce decree and to establish the New Jersey decree as a California decree regarding future installments.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    A state may validly enforce payment of alimony arrearages and future installments based on a sister state’s modifiable decree if both parties are before the court and the issue of modification can be litigated with regard to both parties.

    Facts
    Mrs. Worthley (Plaintiff) received a judgment for alimony in New Jersey that was modifiable both retroactively and prospectively.  She sought to enforce a claim for arrearages in California and to have the California court establish the decree as a California judgment with regard to future installments.  The trial court entered judgment for Mr. Worthley (Defendant).

    Issue
    May a state enforce a modifiable decree for alimony rendered elsewhere when both parties are before the present court and the issue of modification can be litigated?

    Held
    (Traynor, J.)  Yes. The courts may choose to enforce the modifiable decree of another state, although they are not bound to do so.  California is entitled to give such credit to the previous decree as it would receive in the state where it was rendered.  California may litigate the issue of modification, either retroactive or prospective, in the same manner as the rendering state if both parties are properly before the court.  Any judgment for arrearages after consideration of modification will be final and enforceable anywhere.  A judgment for future installments will be a California judgment enforceable, except for potential modifications, here or anywhere.  Reversed.

    Dissent
    (Spence, J.)  If the New Jersey judgment is not final due to its modifiability, California is bound not to enforce it.  This decree is modifiable by any state at any time according to the majority, a view that will result in unacceptable confusion.

    Discussion
    An increasing number of jurisdictions are adopting the view of the majority.  Once the second state has imposed its own decree, it may enforce that decree by appropriate measures, including sequestration and contempt.  Some courts have enforced the modifiable decrees of sister states on the basis that denying enforcement would create sanctuaries for those seeking to avoid their obligations.


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