Jurisdiction is what gives a court the power and authority over the subject matter (known as “subject-matter jurisdiction”) and over the persons involved in a divorce case (known as “personal or in personam jurisdiction.” In Florida, the Circuit Courts resolve most areas of family law over which they have jurisdiction, including all aspects of dissolution of marriage, i.e. divorce.
In a dissolution of marriage case, one of the first issues that has to be determined is whether the court has jurisdiction. The Petition for Dissolution of Marriage, which initiates the dissolution of marriage proceeding, must allege that: “Husband [or Wife, or both] have been residents of the State of Florida for more than six months next before filing this Petition.” If this cannot be alleged and proven, then the court lacks jurisdiction and the divorce cannot be granted in Florida.
In order to have jurisdiction over a particular divorce action, Section 61.021 Fla. Stat. provides that least one of the spouses must have been a resident of Florida for at least six months prior to the filing of the divorce action. Residency is determined by where the person lives as well as by certain “indicia” such as having a Florida driver’s license, having registered to vote in Florida, or registering a vehicle in Florida. If neither spouse has been a resident for six months, a Florida court has no jurisdiction and does not have authority to decide any divorce matters involving the parties.
On a related note, when it comes to granting a dissolution of marriage, Section 61.061, Fla. Stat. provides that divorce proceedings may be brought against persons residing out of the state. If a married couple has separated and one lives in Florida, and one lives in another state, the one living in Florida can file for divorce in Florida so long as he or she has lived in Florida for at least six months. If the out-of-state spouse wishes to fight the divorce, he or she must do so in Florida.
This having been said, the extent of the court’s jurisdiction can have limits on some issues. For example, the court may be able to dissolve the marriage but it may not be able to resolve issues such as division of out-of-state assets and parenting issues if the children never lived in Florida.
Consider an example: John and Mary were married and lived together for ten years in Georgia. They have two minor children who have always lived with them in Georgia. They own a home in Georgia. John decides that he’s unhappy and moves to Florida. After six months, he wants a divorce. He hires a lawyer and a divorce is filed against Mary seeking dissolution of marriage, determination of parenting for the children, and disposition of the marital home. The Florida court can grant John part of what he seeks, i.e. a divorce. The marriage can be dissolved. However, if Mary fights John on the issues of parenting and disposition of the home, the Florida court cannot resolve those issues because neither Mary, the home, nor the children have sufficient contact with Florida. After getting the marriage dissolved in Florida, John would have to address those issues in Georgia.
Jurisdictional matters are an important factor in deciding when and where to file for divorce. Parties wishing to have their marriage dissolved and to have other related matters determined should speak with an experienced family law attorney.