334 U.S. 541 (1948), 139, Estin v. Estin

Docket Nº:No. 139
Citation:334 U.S. 541, 68 S.Ct. 1213, 92 L.Ed. 1561
Party Name:Estin v. Estin
Case Date:June 07, 1948
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 541

334 U.S. 541 (1948)

68 S.Ct. 1213, 92 L.Ed. 1561




No. 139

United States Supreme Court

June 7, 1948

        Argued February 2-3, 1948



        While both spouses were domiciled in New York, a wife obtained a decree of separation and alimony there. Later the husband obtained a Nevada divorce in a proceeding in which the wife was notified constructively and entered no appearance. He stopped paying alimony, and the wife sued in New York for the amount in arrears. The husband appeared and defended on the ground of the Nevada divorce. The New York court sustained the validity of the divorce, but granted the wife judgment for the arrears of alimony. The highest court of New York affirmed.

        Held: the New York judgment did not deny full faith and credit to the Nevada decree. Pp. 542-549.

        (a) Notwithstanding any earlier holdings in New York to the contrary, the holding of the highest court of New York that the award of alimony survived the divorce under New York law, is binding on this Court -- unless it conflicts with the Full Faith and Credit Clause. P. 544.

        (b) The fact that the marital capacity was changed does not mean that every other legal incidence of the marriage was necessarily affected. Pp. 544-545.

        (c) That the requirements of full faith and credit are exacting, so far as judgments are concerned, does not mean that the state of the domicile of one spouse may, through the use of constructive service, enter a decree that changes every legal incidence of the marriage relationship. Pp. 545-546.

        (d) Nevada could not adjudicate rights of the wife under the New York judgment when she was not personally served and did not appear in the Nevada proceeding. Pp. 546-549.

        (e) Since Nevada had no power to adjudicate the wife's rights in the New York judgment, New York need not give full faith and credit to that phase of Nevada's judgment. P. 549.

        296 N.Y. 308, 73 N.E.2d 113, affirmed.

        Notwithstanding a divorce obtained by a husband in Nevada, a New York court gave the wife a judgment for arrears of alimony awarded under an earlier decree

Page 542

granted while both spouses were domiciled in New York. 63 N.Y.S.2d 476. The Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals affirmed. 271 A.D. 829, 66 N.Y.S.2d 421; 296 N.Y. 308, 73 N.E.2d 113. This Court granted certiorari. 332 U.S. 840. Affirmed, p. 549.

        DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

        MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

        This case, here on certiorari to the Court of Appeals of New York, presents an important question under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution.1 Article IV, § 1. It is whether a New York decree awarding respondent $180 per month for her maintenance and support in a separation proceeding survived a Nevada divorce decree which subsequently was granted petitioner.

        The parties were married in 1937, and lived together in New York until 1942, when the husband left the wife. There was no issue of the marriage. In 1943, she brought an action against him for a separation. He entered a general appearance. The court, finding that he had abandoned her, granted her a decree of separation and awarded

Page 543

her $180 per month as permanent alimony. In January, 1944, he went to Nevada, where, in 1945, he instituted an action for divorce. She was notified of the action by constructive service, but entered no appearance in it. In May, 1945, the Nevada court, finding that petitioner had been a bona fide resident of Nevada since January 30, 1944, granted him an absolute divorce "on the ground of three years continual separation, without cohabitation." The Nevada decree made no provision for alimony, though the Nevada court had been advised of the New York decree.

        Prior to that time, petitioner had made payments of alimony under the New York decree. After entry of the Nevada decree, he ceased paying. Thereupon, respondent sued in New York for a supplementary judgment for the amount of the arrears. Petitioner appeared in the action and moved to eliminate the alimony provisions of the separation decree by reason of the Nevada decree. The Supreme Court denied the motion and granted respondent judgment for the arrears. 63 N.Y.S.2d 476. The judgment was affirmed by the Appellate Division, 271 A.D. 829, 66 N.Y.S.2d 421, and then by the Court of Appeals. 296 N.Y. 308, 73 N.E.2d 113.

       We held in Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287; 325 U.S. 226, (1) that a divorce decree granted by a State to one of its domiciliaries is entitled to full [68 S.Ct. 1216] faith and credit in a bigamy prosecution brought in another State, even though the other spouse was given notice of the divorce proceeding only through constructive service, and (2) that, while the finding of domicile by the court that granted the decree is entitled to prima facie weight, it is not conclusive in a sister State, but might be relitigated there. And see Esenwein v. Pennsylvania, 325 U.S. 279. The latter course was followed in this case, as a consequence of which the Supreme Court of New York found, in accord with the Nevada court, that petitioner

Page 544

"is now and since January, 1944, has been a bona fide resident of the Nevada."

        Petitioner's argument, therefore, is that the tail must go with the hide -- that, since by the Nevada decree, recognized in New York, he and respondent are no longer husband and wife, no legal incidence of the marriage remains. We are given a detailed analysis of New York law to show that the New York courts have no power, either by statute or by common law, to compel a man to support his ex-wife, that alimony is payable only so long as the relation of husband and wife exists, and that in New York, as in some other states, see Esenwein v. Pennsylvania, supra, p. 280, a support order does not survive divorce.

        The difficulty with that argument is that the highest court in New York has held in this case that a support order can survive divorce, and that this one has survived petitioner's divorce. That conclusion is binding on us except as it conflicts with the Full Faith and Credit Clause. It is not for us to say whether that ruling squares with what the New York courts said on earlier occasions. It is enough that New York today says that such is her policy. The only question for us is whether New York is powerless to make such a ruling in view of the Nevada decree.

        We can put to one side the case where the wife was personally...

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