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Secret Divorce May Not Be The Asset Shield One Spouse Hoped

When it comes to protecting your assets in the event of divorce, New York offers spouses a number of options both before and after they marry. A well-drafted contract that is signed on by two informed parties will be binding, even if they are married to each other. These can be in the form of a prenuptial agreement, postnuptial agreement, or some other type of contract formulated to address one or more specific matters. They can be narrow or broad, but they must be openly entered into by both parties, with some sort of clear benefit for each party.

Then there are other ways you can try to use to shield your things if the marriage fails, which may or may not result in the outcome you’re hoping for. In the case of Gabriel Villa, 90, and his wife Cristina Carta Villa, 59, it seems that Gabriel went to some extreme lengths to protect his assets after the couple wed in 1994. After 21 years of marriage, Cristina Carta Villa saw a tax bill for the couple’s Manhattan condo last November that didn’t have her name on it.

She began investigating, and eventually learned that just months into their marriage, husband Gabriel had hired lawyers in the Dominican Republic for each of them, then divorced her in secret, citing “incompatibility of temperaments.”

Neither party resided in the Dominican Republic at the time, or in the years since, and Cristina insists that she had no knowledge of the divorce, did not consent to it, and did not agree to any terms. She considers the matter illegal and fraudulent, and has filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court to see the Dominican divorce nullified. She claims that it isn’t even a legal divorce in the Dominican Republic, because neither party ever appeared in court there.

Though the divorce was never filed with the State of New York, it appears that Gabriel used the subsequent decree to have his wife’s name removed from the deed of their one-bedroom condo two decades ago. Then, they continued living together as man and wife, had a baby, raised the child in the residence, and by all accounts have had a successful and happy marriage. Despite their 30-year age difference, they have stood beside each other, and Cristina has acted as Gabriel’s healthcare proxy and power of attorney as he has dealt with medical issues during their marriage.

In other words, except for the secret divorce, you’d think their marriage was a lot like yours.

In her suit, Cristina Carta Villa alleges that her husband divorced her in secret in order to gain control and title to property they had purchased together, specifically the one-bedroom condo on West 55th Street, now valued at $1.4M, where they reside. She believes that her husband intends to sell the condo to his daughter, Marina. Since he used a potentially fraudulent divorce decree to take sole ownership of the property, it’s certainly a risk, and would be a costly problem for her.

There are a number of issues raised in a case featuring these facts. First, is this divorce enforceable in New York? While it’s impossible to evaluate the veracity of the claims in the lawsuit (that’s what the court is for), looking only at the details reported in the media, the answer is no.

There are a few jurisdictions in the world, the Dominican Republic among them, that don’t have residency requirements in order to divorce there, but they do have requirements around notification for both parties. Further, when you return to New York and attempt to have your divorce decree enforced by a court here, you’ll be required to provide your former spouse with notification of the action, giving them the opportunity to contest it.

If Mr. Villa tries to sell the apartment, or any marital property accumulated during the last 20 years, citing an unenforceable foreign divorce decree, his wife will have ample ground to come after him for her share of the profits. It’s hard to imagine a judge doing anything but making her as whole as possible.

Assuming the accuracy of the claims in this case, you have to wonder whether Mr. Villa ever spoke to a reputable matrimonial attorney about his concerns. Instead of undertaking a shady, immoral, and likely unenforceable path to try to shield some wealth, he could instead have begun an open dialog with his new wife about a postnuptial agreement that would protect them and their future children in the event of death or divorce.

He could have worked with her before the wedding to draw up a prenuptial contract that would fill the same role. But that’s not what he appears to have chosen. Instead, he’s a 90-year-old man being sued by his wife of 20 years, who has reason to believe he will cheat her out of a substantial amount of money.

Don’t let this happen to you. Whether you’re engaged and planning a life together or have been married for years and want to ensure you’ll be protected in case of divorce, the attorneys at Zelenitz, Shapiro & D’Agostino can help. We work in close consultation with our clients to understand their concerns and their goals, then develop marital contracts that provide the maximum protection possible for their wealth and assets.

We are experienced negotiators who can help your spouse understand the advantages of a contract and make sure that you don’t sign until you have everything you need from it.

When you need a higher level of protection in Queens, call us today at 718-523-1111 for a free consultation.