As a divorce attorney in Washington, potential clients often ask me: “Can I file for divorce here if I only recently moved to this state?” The overly simplified answer is yes—you can file for divorce in Washington if you are a “resident”. But Washington’s courts might lack jurisdiction to determine related issues. Moreover, Washington might decline jurisdiction over the case if another location would be a more convenient forum. Read on for a fuller explanation.
Residence Standard. You can file for divorce in Washington if you “reside” here, regardless how short your time in this state has been. The definition of residence is where you live—or last lived—with the intent to remain. So if you have only been in this state for two days, but you have no intention of leaving, you are a resident and can file here. But if you are on vacation, you are not a resident, since you presumably intend to leave at some point.
Do you need a driver’s license or voter registration to prove your intent to remain here? No. There is no documentation necessary to establish that you have become a resident. Getting a driver’s license or the like can be useful, however, if your spouse argues to the court that you are lying about your intent to remain here. Anything that increases your connection to Washington—such as buying or renting a local home, getting a job in Washington, enrolling your kids in school, becoming romantically involved with a Washingtonian, or getting a driver’s license—can be good evidence of your decision to stay in this geographic area.
Jurisdiction Over Child(ren). If you have only lived here for a short time, or if your child(ren) are in another state or country, Washington might not have jurisdiction over child-related matters. Generally, the state where the child(ren) lived for the six months prior to the preceding is the appropriate location for child-related litigation. Child-related matters include establishing a parenting plan (“custody”). Sometimes this means Washington courts enter a divorce decree without making any determination regarding custody. Custody can then be litigated in the child(ren)’s home state or country.
Jurisdiction Over Spouse. Similarly, if you recently relocated to Washington, our state might have jurisdiction to enter a divorce decree while lacking personal jurisdiction over your soon-to-be-ex-spouse. Without personal jurisdiction over your spouse, the local courts cannot award spousal maintenance (“alimony”), divide property, allocate debts, or enter restraints, such as a protection order.
Jurisdiction Over Real Estate. Lastly, the law restricts Washington’s ability to address real estate issues when the realty sits outside our state’s bounds.
Declining Jurisdiction. Based on upon the above-listed jurisdictional issues and the location of witnesses, occasionally Washington will decline jurisdiction over a divorce in favor of a more convenient location. The more convenient the alternate location, the more likely Washington is to decline jurisdiction even when the petitioning spouse lives here. It is rare, however, for Washington to decline jurisdiction entirely; usually Washington retains the right to at least declare the parties divorced.