From the race to jurisdiction to being the first to invoke a final decision: Cour de cassation, 30 September 2009


Une décision rendue par la Cour de cassation le 30 septembre 2009, reconnaît en France les effets d’une décision de divorce rendue aux Etats-Unis et devenue définitive, alors même que les tribunaux français avaient été saisis en premier. Cette décision laisse penser que la course à la saisine des juridictions en matière de divorce (en dehors de l’Union Européenne) peut devenir la course à l’obtention d’une décision définitive.

From the race to jurisdiction to being the first to invoke a final decision: Cour de cassation, 30 September 2009

In a ruling case where W filed in Massachusetts over a month after H filed for divorce in France in Toulouse (H had filed his divorce petition on 28 October 2005 and W filed her divorce petition in the US on 21 November 2005[1]), the French Supreme Court (the Cour de cassation[2]) ruled that the decision rendered by the Massachusetts courts on August 16th 2006 declaring the divorce between the spouses final was to be recognized in France in accordance with French exequatur rules. The Court of Appeals decision accepting that the US decision could be recognized in France, was rendered on 20 May 2008, almost two years after the 16 August 2006 divorce decision rendered by the U.S. courts.

The divorce was therefore final in the US before the Toulouse Court of Appeals even had the opportunity to the resolve the issue of lis alibi pendens and it ruled that the procedure in France had lost all interest. Consequently, the provisional measures ordered by the court (the French equivalent of custody and maintenance pending suit), as a consequence, had lapsed.

Moreover, the Toulouse Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court considered that that the petition filed by W was not necessary fraudulent, even though H had already filed in France. The validity of her petition was based on (i) her having resided with her three children in the US for more than six months before it was filed, (ii) her intent of trying to receive a more profitable decision in seizing the Massachusetts courts was not proved, and (iii) H was notified of the proceedings before the U.S. courts and acknowledged having received the exhibits submitted by W[3].

The spouse who risks having the divorce be heard in France, such jurisdiction being not of its choosing, should therefore persevere and obtain a ruling from a “speedier” US jurisdiction, enabling it to invoke the rule of res judicata against the other spouse’s argument of lis alibi pendens.

The lesson learned is that lawyers representing clients wishing to have divorce proceedings entertained in the US, rather than in France, in the hopes of obtaining a more generous financial award and settlement, should remember that the race may not be over until the divorce has been proclaimed final by either jurisdiction. Filing first is no longer the finish line of the race, but rather, the starting point….

[1] It is possible that W had not been served yet and was not aware of the petition filed by H, at the time she filed her petition in the US.

[2] Cour de cassation, 1st civil chamber, 30 September 2009, No. 08-18769.

[3] The Court of Appeals adopted the same position as had been taken by the Supreme Court in a similar case tried in 2006 by which it ruled that a decision pronouncing the divorce final rendered by a foreign court seized second could be receive full force and effect in France if the seizing of the foreign court (after the French court had been seized first) was not fraudulent. Cour de cassation, 1st civil chamber, 28 March 2006, No. 03-18934.