Vanderbilt v. Vanderbilt

Decision Date24 June 1957
Docket NumberNo. 302,302
Citation354 U.S. 416,77 S.Ct. 1360,1 L.Ed.2d 1456
PartiesCornelius VANDERBILT, Jr., Petitioner, v. Patricia W. VANDERBILT and Thomas F. McCoy, Receiver and Sequestrator
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Sol A. Rosenblatt, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. Monroe J. Winsten, New York City, for respondents.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., petitioner, and Patricia Vanderbilt, respondent, were married in 1948. They separated in 1952 while living in California. The wife moved to New York where she has resided since February 1953. In March of that year the husband filed suit for divorce in Nevada. This proceeding culminated, in June 1953, with a decree of final divorce which provided that both husband and wife were 'freed and released from the bonds of matrimony and all the duties and obligations thereof. * * *'1 The wife was not served with process in Nevada and did not appear before the divorce court.

In April 1954, Mrs. Vanderbilt instituted an action in a New York court praying for separation from petitioner and for alimony. The New York court did not have personal jurisdiction over him, but in order to satisfy his obligations, if any, to Mrs. Vanderbilt, it sequestered his property within the State.2 He appeared specially and, among other defenses to the action, contended that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution3 compelled the New York court to treat the Nevada divorce as having ended the marriage and as having destroyed any duty of support which he owed the respondent. While the New York court found the Nevada decree valid and held that it had effectively dissolved the marriage, it nevertheless entered an order, under § 1170—b of the New York Civil Practice Act,4 directing petitioner to make designated support payments to respondent. 207 Misc. 294, 138 N.Y.S.2d 222. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the support order. 1 N.Y.2d 342, 135 N.E.2d 553. Petitioner then applied to this Court for certiorari contending that § 1170—b, as applied, is unconstitutional because it contravenes the Full Faith and Credit Clause.5 We granted certiorari, 352 U.S. 820, 77 S.Ct. 67, 1 L.Ed.2d 45.

In Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, 68 S.Ct. 1213, 92 L.Ed. 1561, this Court decided that a Nevada divorce court, which had no personal jurisdiction over the wife, had no power to terminate a husband's obligation to provide her support as required in a pre-existing New York separation decree. The factor which distinguishes the present case from Estin is that here the wife's right to support had not been reduced to judgment prior to the husband's ex parte divorce. In our opinion this difference is not material on the question before us. Since the wife was not subject to its jurisdiction, the Nevada divorce court had no power to extinguish any right which she had under the law of New York to financial support from her husband. It has long been the constitutional rule that a court cannot adjudicate a personal claim or obligation unless it has jurisdiction over the person of the defendant.6 Here, the Nevada divorce court was as powerless to cut off the wife's support right as it would have been to order the husband to pay alimony if the wife had brought the divorce action and he had not been subject to the divorce court's jurisdiction. Therefore, the Nevada decree, to the extent it purported to affect the wife's right to support, was void and the Full Faith and Credit Clause did not obligate New York to give it recognition.7

Petitioner claims that this case is governed by Thompson v. Thompson, 226 U.S. 551, 33 S.Ct. 129, 57 L.Ed. 347. For the reasons given in a concurring opinion in Armstrong v. Armstrong, 350 U.S. 568, 575, at 580—581, 76 S.Ct. 629, 636, 100 L.Ed. 705, the Thompson case, insofar as it held that an ex parte divorce destroyed alimony rights, can no longer be considered controlling.


The CHIEF JUSTICE took to part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, dissenting.

The question in this case is whether Nevada, which was empowered to grant petitioner a divorce without personal jurisdiction over respondent that must be respected, by command of the Constitution, by every other State, Williams v. State of North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287, 63 S.Ct. 207, 87 L.Ed. 279 was at the same time empowered by virtue of its domiciliary connection with petitioner to make, incidental to its dissolution of the marriage, an adjudication denying alimony to which sister States must also give full faith and credit. Whatever the answer to the question may be, Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, 68 S.Ct. 1213, 92 L.Ed. 1561, does not supply it. What the Court now states to be 'not material' was crucial to the decision in that case, namely, the prior New York support order, which the Court held Nevada was required to respect by virtue of the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Art. IV, § 1, of the Constitution. That this fact was crucial to the Court's decision in that case is made clear by the Court's reference to the prior New York judgment in its two statements of the question presented more than a half dozen times throughout the course of its opinion. The Court rightly regarded the fact as crucial because of the requirement of Art. IV, § 1, that Nevada give full faith and credit to the prior New York 'judicial Proceedings.'

The Court now chooses to regard the existence of a prior New York support order as 'not material,' holding for the first time that 'the Nevada divorce court had no power to extinguish any right which (respondent) had under the law of New York to financial support from her husband. It has long been the constitutional rule that a court cannot adjudicate a personal claim or obligation unless it has jurisdiction over the person of the defendant (citing for this proposition, Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 726—727, 24 L.Ed. 565).' We have thus reached another stage—one cannot say it is the last—in the Court's tortuous course of constitutional adjudication relating to dissolution of the marriage status. Whereas previously only the State of 'matrimonial domicile' could grant an ex parte divorce and alimony, now any domiciliary State can grant an ex parte divorce, but no State, even if domiciliary, can grant alimony ex parte when it grants a divorce ex parte.

It will make for clarity to give a brief review of the singular history of matrimonial law in this Court since the decision in Atherton v. Atherton, 181 U.S. 155, 21 S.Ct. 544, 45 L.Ed. 794. In that case, the Court held that a sister State had to give full faith and credit to a divorce granted, on the basis of constructive service, by the matrimonial domicile to a deserted husband. In Haddock v. Haddock, 201 U.S. 562, 26 S.Ct. 525, 50 L.Ed. 867, the Court refused to extend Atherton, holding that a State need not give full faith and credit to a divorce granted ex parte to a deserted husband by a domiciliary State other than the matrimonial domicile. These precedents were applied to the incidental claim to alimony in Thompson v. Thompson, 226 U.S. 551, 33 S.Ct. 129, 57 L.Ed. 347, where the Court held that full faith and credit was to be given to the refusal of the matrimonial domicile to grant alimony when it granted a divorce on the basis of substituted service. Under the pre-Williams law, then, the same jurisdictional rules applied to the dissolution of the marriage tie and to an incidental adjudication denying alimony. Not only the adjudication of divorce but also the adjudication denying alimony by the matrimonial domicile was required to be given full faith and credit despite the lack of personal jurisdiction over the other spouse.

In Williams v. State of North Carolina, I, 317 U.S. 287, 63 S.Ct. 207, 87 L.Ed. 279, the scope of Art. IV, § 1, was found to require full faith and credit to be given to a divorce granted ex parte by any State where one spouse was domiciled. The limitation of ex parte divorces to the matrimonial domicile imposed by Hoddock v. Haddock was rejected as being based on 'fiction.' Williams v. State of North Carolina, II, 325 U.S. 226, 65 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed. 1577, made it clear that full faith and credit was required to be given only if the granting State was actually a domiciliary State, that the finding on this issue could not be foreclosed by the decreeding State, and that it could be readjudicated later by another State. But this restriction of Williams II was considerably weakened when the Court held that a sister State, no matter how great its interest because of its own social policy, was precluded from relitigating the existence of the jurisdictional facts underlying a divorce when both parties had merely made an appearance in the original divorce proceeding. Sherrer v. Sherrer, 334 U.S. 343, 68 S.Ct. 1087, 1097, 92 L.Ed. 1429, and Coe v. Coe, 334 U.S. 378, 68 S.Ct. 1094, 92 L.Ed. 1451. This was so even if the collateral attack were made by a third party who had not appeared in the original proceeding and who had independent interests. Johnson v. Muelberger, 340 U.S. 581, 71 S.Ct. 474, 95 L.Ed. 552.

The decisions from Williams I through Johnson resulted in a broad extension of the scope of the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Haddock v. Haddock was rejected, not because it gave too little respect to the rights of the absent spouse, but rather because it gave too much respect to those rights, and not enough to the rights of the other spouse and his or her domiciliary State. The interests of the absent spouses were subordinated to the interests of the other spouses and their domicile of divorce in Williams I, and the interests of a State that was allegedly both pre-divorce and post-divorce domicile were subordinated to the interest of the temporary 'domicile' of divorce in Sherrer and Coe.

One might have expected that since Thompson v. Thompson, supra, was based on Haddock v. Haddock, it would have suffered the...

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