In new decision, De-Paz York v. York, the Appeals Court finds that the Probate and Family Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to issue a divorce judgment. In that case, the parties last lived together in Colombia on March 30, 2017. The wife filed a complaint for divorce in Massachusetts on October 30, 2017, claiming there had been an irretrievable breakdown of the parties’ marriage as of April 1, 2017. The wife resided in Norwell, MA at the time she filed the complaint.
On June 14, 2018, the wife appeared before the Probate and Family Court for a pretrial conference. The husband did not appear at the pretrial conference, although the wife told the judge that the husband was in Massachusetts and knew of the hearing. The pretrial conference order included a notice that the case could proceed to trial on the date of the pretrial conference. In accordance with that order, the judge called the case for trial. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge entered a judgment of divorce nisi that adopted the wife’s proposed judgment in its entirety. On appeal, the husband argued that the judge improperly granted a divorce, claiming that the court was without subject matter to do so.
General Laws c. 208, §5 provides in pertinent part that a divorce may be adjudged in Massachusetts if 1) the plaintiff has lived in the Commonwealth for at least one year preceding the commencement of the divorce action, or 2) if the plaintiff is domiciled within the Commonwealth at the time of the commencement of the divorce action and the cause of the divorce occurred within the Commonwealth.
Here, the Appeals Court found that the Wife failed to meet her burden to prove that the court had subject matter jurisdiction over the divorce. Although the wife’s complaint and her testimony established her view that the marriage broke down in April of 2017, there was no evidence in the record that the breakdown of the marriage occurred in Massachusetts. Rather than focusing on the location of the breakdown of the marriage, the wife instead argued that Massachusetts was the location of her domicile at the time the marriage was broken down. The Appeals Court stated that the wife was misreading § 5 and that the location of the wife’s domicile at the time she commenced the divorce (when her marriage was irretrievably broken) is only relevant if the breakdown of the marriage occurred in Massachusetts.
Because the wife failed to prove the breakdown of the marriage occurred in Massachusetts, the only other way for jurisdiction to be proper would be if the wife maintained an actual continuous residence in Massachusetts for at least 12 months prior to filing her divorce complaint. Although the wife testified that she had been living in Massachusetts for over a year at the time of the pretrial hearing, it was uncontested that she had not been living in Massachusetts for 12 continuous months prior to filing her divorce complaint.
As such, the Appeals Court found that there was no subject matter jurisdiction and remanded the case to the Probate and Family Court with direction to dismiss the wife’s divorce complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
This case serves as a reminder that jurisdiction matters and that a case may get dismissed months after the commencement of a divorce action due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction. If there is any ambiguity regarding jurisdiction in a divorce, the party seeking the divorce should consult with a family law attorney to discuss his or her particular situation and get more information