What is a Secret Divorce?

Let’s take a real-life example. Gabriel Villa, a wealthy businessman, married a woman 30 years his junior in 1994. Just four months after their wedding, he took his new wife on vacation to the Dominican Republic. Unbeknownst to her, he secretly divorced her, citing an ‘incompatibility of temperaments.’ This shocking revelation came to light years later when Gabriel tried to remove her name from the deeds of their Manhattan apartment.

The couple had continued living together as husband and wife for more than 20 years before his wife discovered that they were no longer married. Cristina Villa discovered the secret divorce when she noticed correspondence relating to taxes on their New York apartment was addressed only to her husband.

The ex-school teacher then launched a legal action, accusing her former husband of fraud and claiming that she was never notified of the divorce. She claimed it wasn’t legal and didn’t remember giving permission for it to proceed.

Perhaps surprisingly, this kind of secret divorce is still possible in the Dominican Republic. Any foreigner who is a legal resident of the Dominican Republic can get a divorce there, even if their spouse is not a resident. It doesn’t matter if the wedding took place outside the Dominican Republic. If the spouse’s address is unknown, they are not required to be notified.

Anyone who married in the Dominican Republic, regardless of their country of residence, can also divorce there.

Finalizing this kind of divorce will take around six months, and hiring attorneys in the Dominican Republic will be essential.

Marriage poses one of the most significant challenges to robust asset protection. In many jurisdictions, marriage can grant your spouse a claim on a substantial portion of your assets. To pre-emptively address this, it’s advisable to establish Trust structures well before any potential marriage. This will isolate your assets from such claims.

Whether the strategy of obtaining a secret divorce without the knowledge of your spouse can be effective will depend on the jurisdiction where you reside and where your assets are held. As in the case of Gabriel Villa, it’s very possible that the party who perceives that they’ve lost out because of the divorce will sue and make a claim on your assets in any case. Therefore, while secret divorces may have certain limited use cases, their practicality and effectiveness must be carefully considered.

Implementing robust asset protection strategies well before any marriage takes place would make much more sense.

What is one of the most significant challenges to robust asset protection?

Marriage, because it can grant your spouse a claim on a substantial portion of your assets, especially if you live in a community property state or a country that recognizes marital property rights. This can expose your assets to the risk of divorce, creditors, lawsuits, or inheritance disputes

What is the advisable way to address this challenge before any potential marriage?

To establish Trust structures that isolate your assets from such claims. A Trust is a legal entity that holds and manages your assets for the benefit of yourself or your beneficiaries. By transferring your assets to a Trust, you can protect them from the claims of your spouse or any other third party. However, you need to create the Trust well before any marriage takes place. Otherwise, it might be seen as a fraudulent transfer or an attempt to evade your spouse’s rights.

What is a secret divorce, and why might it be ineffective?

A secret divorce is obtained without your spouse’s knowledge, usually in a foreign jurisdiction with lax requirements, and does not notify the other party. Some people might resort to a secret divorce as a way to avoid sharing their assets with their spouse or to remarry someone else. However, a secret divorce might be ineffective because the other party might still sue and make a claim on your assets in the jurisdiction where you reside or where your assets are held. A secret divorce might also be invalid or unenforceable in your home country or state, depending on the applicable laws and treaties.