Divorce Suit: In Rem or in Personam; Judicial Indecision.

In 1906, however, by a vote of five to four, the Court de- parted from its earlier ruling, rendered five years previously in Atherton v. Atherton,49 and in Haddock v. Haddock,50 it announced that a divorce proceeding might be viewed as one in personam. In the former case it was held, in the latter case denied, that a divorce granted a husband without personal service upon the wife, who at the time was residing in another state, was entitled to recognition under the full faith and credit clause and the acts of Congress; the difference between the cases consisted solely in the fact that in the Atherton case the husband had driven the wife from their joint home by his conduct, while in the Haddock case he had deserted her. The court that granted the divorce in Atherton v. Atherton was held to have had jurisdiction of the marriage status, with the result that the proceeding was one in rem and hence required only service by publication upon the respondent. Haddock’s suit, on the contrary, was held to be as to the wife in personam and so to require personal service upon her or her voluntary appearance, neither of which had been had; although, notwithstanding this, the decree in the latter case was held to be valid in the state where obtained because of the state’s inherent power to determine the status of its own citizens. The upshot was a situation in which a man and a woman, when both were in Connecticut, were divorced; when both were in New York, were married; and when the one was in Connecticut and the other in New York, the former was divorced and the latter married. In Atherton v. Atherton the Court had earlier acknowledged that “a husband without a wife, or a wife without a husband, is unknown to the law.”

The practical difficulties and distresses likely to result from such anomalies were pointed out by critics of the decision at the time. In point of fact, they have been largely avoided, because most of the state courts have continued to give judicial recognition and full faith and credit to one another’s divorce proceedings on the basis of the older idea that a divorce proceeding is one in rem, and that if the applicant is bona fide domiciled in the state the court has jurisdiction in this respect. Moreover, until the second of the Williams v. North Carolina cases51 was decided in 1945, there had not been manifested the slightest disposition to challenge judicially the power of the states to determine what shall constitute domicile for divorce purposes. A few years before, the Court in Davis v. Davis52 rejected contentions adverse to the validity of a Virginia decree of which enforcement was sought in the District of Columbia. In this case, a husband, after having obtained in the District a decree of separation subject to payment of alimony, established years later a residence in Virginia and sued there for a divorce. Personally served in the District, where she continued to reside, the wife filed a plea denying that her husband was a resident of Virginia and averred that he was guilty of a fraud on the court in seeking to establish a residence for purposes of jurisdiction. In ruling that the Virginia decree, granting to the husband an absolute divorce minus any alimony payment, was enforceable in the District, the Court stated that in view of the wife’s failure, while in Virginia litigating her husband’s status to sue, to answer the husband’s charges of willful desertion, it would be unreasonable to hold that the husband’s domicile in Virginia was not sufficient to entitle him to a divorce effective in the District. The finding of the Virginia court on domicile and jurisdiction was declared to bind the wife. Davis v. Davis is distinguishable from the Williams v. North Carolina decisions in that in the former determination of the jurisdictional prerequisite of domicile was made in a contested proceeding whereas in the Williams cases it was not.


181 U.S. 155, 162 (1901). back
201 U.S. 562 (1906). back
317 U.S. 287 (1942) 325 U.S. 226 (1945). back
305 U.S. 32 (1938). back