Snider v. Snider

Decision Date09 July 2001
Docket NumberNo. 28719.,28719.
Citation209 W.Va. 771,551 S.E.2d 693
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesRebecca Carolyn SNIDER, Plaintiff below, Appellee, v. Clarence Edward Don SNIDER, Defendant below, Appellant.

Rebecca Carolyn Snider, Pro se.

Charles G. Johnson, Esq., Robin Queen Triplett, Esq., Johnson, Simmerman & Broughton, L.C., Delby B. Pool, Esq., Clarksburg, West Virginia, Attorneys for the Appellant. STARCHER, Justice:

In this appeal of a domestic relations action from the Circuit Court of Harrison County, we are asked to examine the jurisdiction of a circuit court to award alimony to the appellee and to equitably divide the parties' marital property, when one party to the marriage had previously been granted a divorce decree in a foreign jurisdiction. The appellant, who obtained a divorce in a jurisdiction that could not assert personal jurisdiction over the appellee, contends that the foreign divorce decree voided West Virginia's jurisdiction to adjudicate the parties' property interests. In sum, the appellant argues that the foreign decree extinguished West Virginia's personal jurisdiction over the appellant, and its subject matter jurisdiction over any interests incidental to the parties' marriage.

After examining the record and the briefs of the parties, we conclude that West Virginia can properly assert personal jurisdiction over the appellant. We further conclude that spousal support and marital property rights survive a foreign divorce decree when the foreign court did not have personal jurisdiction over the defendant in the foreign proceeding.

As set forth below, we affirm the circuit court's award of alimony to the appellee, and affirm the circuit court's equitable distribution of the parties' marital property.

I. Facts and Background

In the instant divorce action, the parties dispute whether the defendant below and appellant, Clarence Edward Don Snider, is subject to our divorce, equitable distribution, and spousal support statutes. The circuit court in the instant case determined that Mr. Snider would be subject to West Virginia law and the jurisdiction of West Virginia's courts. To understand the basis for this conclusion requires an examination of Mr. Snider's contacts with the State of West Virginia.

The parties to the instant divorce action are the appellant, Mr. Snider, and the plaintiff below and appellee, Rebecca C. Snider. The parties were married on January 20, 1973, in Garrett County, Maryland. Ms. Snider had two children from a previous union, and Mr. Snider adopted them both. The children are now emancipated.

Mr. Snider was employed by various glass companies throughout the marriage. Between 1973 and 1993, he was employed by five different companies, requiring that he move from West Virginia to Pennsylvania, back to West Virginia, and again to Pennsylvania. Finally, from 1987 until 1993, Mr. Snider was employed by a glass company in New Jersey.

During the marriage, Ms. Snider was an "at-home mom," raising the children, cooking, and cleaning. Ms. Snider was also charged with arranging for the selling of each house and packing up its contents whenever Mr. Snider took a job in another state.

At some time during 1993, a colleague of Mr. Snider moved to a new job in Elgin, Illinois, and asked Mr. Snider to join him. Mr. Snider apparently agreed to seek a new job with a glass company in Illinois.

Shortly thereafter, in January 1994, the parties traveled to West Virginia to visit with Ms. Snider's family. During the visit, Mr. Snider inspected a townhouse that was being offered for sale in Bridgeport, West Virginia. Mr. Snider informed his wife that he liked the townhouse, and would like to live there when he retired. After several weeks, the parties returned to New Jersey, contacted a realtor, and placed their New Jersey home on the market. The parties also made an offer to purchase the townhouse in West Virginia.

In March 1994, Mr. Snider began working as a consultant, ostensibly under a 6-month contract, for a glass company in Elgin, Illinois. During his time in Illinois, Mr. Snider lived in a motel at company expense. Three months later, the parties were able to complete the purchase of the townhouse in Bridgeport, West Virginia. Mr. Snider arranged the financing for the townhouse, by phone, with a bank in West Virginia.

During the Thanksgiving and Christmas 1994 holidays, the parties spent time in the West Virginia townhouse with other family members. The house in New Jersey was finally sold in January 1995, and both parties worked together to pack their household belongings for the move to West Virginia. The move to the townhouse was completed in March 1995, and Mr. Snider stayed several days in the West Virginia townhouse to unpack. However, he subsequently returned to the contract job in Illinois.

Ms. Snider contends that, throughout 1995 and 1996, Mr. Snider would routinely stay with her for extended weekends, 3 and 4 days at a time, and for several weeks around holidays, at the townhouse in Bridgeport. While at the townhouse, he would ask her to check the newspapers for want ads, suggesting he intended to return to West Virginia to work. Mr. Snider would also send his wife romantic cards. She claims that Mr. Snider repeatedly said that he was planning to quit his job in Illinois and return to Bridgeport to live. Friends and relatives would ask him when he was quitting his job in Illinois, to which he would reply, "Soon." Mr. Snider discouraged Ms. Snider from moving to Illinois because of the cost, and because of his impending retirement. However, Mr. Snider continued to extend his contract in Illinois.

In January and again in April 1997, Mr. Snider visited his wife in Bridgeport, and informed her he was retiring—and returning to West Virginia—in July. Unfortunately, in June 1997, Mr. Snider announced that he wanted a divorce.

Mr. Snider filed for divorce in the Circuit Court of Kane County, Illinois on October 3, 1997, alleging that the parties had been separated on a continuous basis since March 1994. Ms. Snider countered by filing the instant divorce action in the Circuit Court of Harrison County, West Virginia on October 24, 1997.

The Illinois circuit court granted a "judgment dissolving the parties' marriage" on April 1, 1998. However, the Illinois circuit court did not address any other matters, such as the equitable distribution of the parties' marital property or spousal support.1

Mr. Snider then moved to dismiss the West Virginia divorce action, contending that because of the Illinois ruling, the West Virginia courts lacked personal jurisdiction over him. On August 8, 1998, the family law master entered an order rejecting Mr. Snider's motion, concluding that the Illinois courts had exercised jurisdiction only over the marriage of the parties. The family law master ruled that West Virginia courts had jurisdiction over the assets of the parties located in West Virginia, and over Mr. Snider personally due to his numerous contacts with the State of West Virginia.

The parties then presented evidence to the family law master, who subsequently recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law to the circuit court. In an order dated January 28, 2000, the circuit court adopted the family law master's findings and conclusions, and ordered the equitable distribution of the marital assets of the parties. The circuit court also required Mr. Snider to pay Ms. Snider $2,500.00 per month in spousal support, and to pay her attorney's fees.

Mr. Snider now appeals the circuit court's January 28, 2000 order.

II. Standard of Review

In appeals involving domestic relations matters, we employ a three-pronged standard of review established in Syllabus Point 1 of Burnside v. Burnside, 194 W.Va. 263, 460 S.E.2d 264 (1995):

In reviewing challenges to findings made by a family law master that also were adopted by a circuit court, a three-pronged standard of review is applied. Under these circumstances, a final equitable distribution order is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard; the underlying factual findings are reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law and statutory interpretations are subject to a de novo review.

With this standard in mind, we review the arguments of the parties.

III. Discussion

The appellant, Mr. Snider, argues that the circuit court's order is void because the court had neither personal jurisdiction over Mr. Snider, nor subject matter jurisdiction over the equitable distribution of the parties' marital property and any spousal support.

It is a common occurrence for one party to a marriage to seek a divorce in a jurisdiction that is foreign to the other party. This practice, where one spouse obtains a divorce in a foreign jurisdiction without the participation of the other spouse, is known as an "ex parte divorce." Courts examining these occurrences have developed the "divisible divorce" doctrine, thereby allowing courts to separate resolution of the ex parte divorce from the resolution of the parties' other marital interests—such as child custody and support, spousal support, and the distribution of marital property.

A "divisible divorce" is a brief way of indicating that while a decree in a divorce case may be valid insofar as it grants a divorce, it may be invalid with respect to, or it may have no effect upon, separable personal rights.

24A Am.Jur.2d, Divorce and Separation, § 1182 (1998) (footnote omitted).

Jurisdiction over an action to dissolve a marriage may be based on the domicil of just one spouse. See, e.g., Fletcher v. Fletcher, 95 Md.App. 114, 619 A.2d 561 (1993)

. However, if a court has jurisdiction over only one spouse but not the other, "the `divisible divorce' concept permits the court to dissolve the marital relationship of the parties ... without addressing the property rights and obligations of the parties." 24 Am.Jur.2d, Divorce and Separation, §...

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    ...novo. See, State ex rel. Orlofske v. City of Wheeling, 212 W.Va. 538, 542, 575 S.E.2d 148, 152 (2002), quoting, Snider v. Snider, 209 W.Va. 771, 777, 551 S.E.2d 693, 699 (2001). Similarly, "where the issue on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or involving an inte......
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