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Estin v. Estin

    Brief Fact Summary
    Mrs. Estin (Plaintiff) had received a judgment for permanent alimony from Mr. Estin (Defendant) in a separate maintenance action in New York, where both resided at the time.  Defendant then stopped payment after obtaining an ex parte divorce in Nevada that did not provide for alimony.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    The marital status of the parties is divisible from their rights and obligations under such status, and a court having jurisdiction over only one element can lawfully adjudicate the issues of only that element.

    Facts
    Mr. Estin (Defendant) and Mrs. Estin (Plaintiff) were lawfully married in New York but Mrs. Estin (Plaintiff) then sought and received a judgment of separate maintenance and permanent alimony from Mr. Estin (Defendant) in a New York court where Defendant made a general appearance.  Defendant began making the ordered alimony payments and moved his residence to Nevada where he established domicile.  He then obtained an ex parte divorce in Nevada, which made no provision for alimony.  Plaintiff was served by constructive notice, no personal service being made on her.  She did not make an appearance in the Nevada action.  Following the divorce, Defendant stopped making the alimony payments and Plaintiff sought to enforce payment.  Defendant appeared in the New York proceeding and claimed the Nevada divorce as a defense to paying further alimony.  The New York trial and appellate courts denied his defense and he appealed, alleging failure to give full faith and credit.

    Issue
    May a court having jurisdiction over the marital status of the parties also enter a valid judgment about the property rights of the respective spouses without jurisdiction over both parties?

    Held
    (Douglas, J.)  No.  The divorce decree was validly entered by the Nevada court and, therefore, it must be given full faith and credit by New York.  However, the rights and obligations of the parties are divisible from their marital status and the Nevada court did not have the requisite personal jurisdiction over Mrs. Estin (Plaintiff) to allow it to adjudicate her rights in that area.  The New York judgment of alimony vested in Plaintiff an intangible property right over which Nevada could not exercise jurisdiction.  A court cannot affect the rights of a creditor without personal jurisdiction over that creditor.  This division allows the respective states to exercise domain over that element of the relationship in which they have legitimate interests.  The parties are therefore divorced but the New York judgment of alimony stands and is not affected by the Nevada decree.  Affirmed.

    Dissent
    (Frankfurter, J.)  Since it is not clear whether New York has held that no “ex parte†divorce decree could determine a prior New York separate maintenance decree or that only for classification.

    (Jackson, J.)  If the Nevada judgment is to have full faith and credit, it must have the same effect that a similar New York decree would have.

    Discussion
    The pronouncement of the divisible nature of a divorce action provided a partial solution to the problem created by “quickie divorce†states.


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