Susan from California asked, “Can I file for divorce in California if my husband lives in New York? Or, do I have to file in New York?” The answer is that there’s no easy and straightforward answer. Maybe yes, maybe no and maybe in both. It just depends upon the facts of Susan’s situation, the laws of California and the laws of New York. It revolves around the questions of which state has jurisdiction to enter an enforceable order that handles each legal issue involved in the divorce and which state has proper venue if both states could have jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction is the power and authority that a court or a judge has to hear and determine a particular type of case and issue. Personal (in personam) jurisdiction and subject matter (in rem) jurisdiction are the two types that most frequently come up in an interstate divorce.

A court has to have personal jurisdiction over “the person” of each party to a lawsuit in order to enter an enforceable judgment. This means that each person must have been properly served notice of the pending lawsuit and, in some instances, must submit to the jurisdiction of the court by filing an entry of appearance in the court file.

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divorce real estate

Disposition of the family home frequently causes problems in a divorce. Custodial parents may want to hang onto the home for the sake of the children. Perhaps one or both spouses can’t afford to purchase a similar replacement home. Much depends upon the amount of equity in the home and the ability of each spouse to keep it.

The following is a portion of a chapter from Divorce Strategy that contains information to get you started on the road of evaluating your divorce decision about your real estate.

For most couples the family home is the highest valued asset they will have to divide in their divorce. Its division is usually fraught with controversy for varying reasons. It may be difficult to value, is not readily converted to cash, costs a substantial amount of money to maintain and has implications of federal and state tax liability. As if all those things were not enough, your family’s emotional attachment to your real estate, in particular a family or vacation home, can cause you to make an irrational or poor decision at the time of the divorce. Your family may be haunted by that decision for years after your divorce.

Some questions that you need to answer are:

  • Should you sell the family home?

  • Do you keep it until the children are grown?

  • Should you keep the home and buyout your soon to be ex-spouse, or vice versa?

  • Can either of you afford to keep it after the divorce?

The answers to these questions and others can help you avoid or plan for problems associated with your real estate. Historically, the family home is the asset that most often causes controversy both before and after a divorce.

The principal reason for this problem is the timing of the sale of the home and the division of the net proceeds. Both events frequently occur some time after the divorce. In addition, couples seldom plan as they should for the payment of household maintenance and upkeep during the pendency of the divorce. At first glance the family home appears to be the easiest asset to identify and describe. For purposes of a divorce, the description of your ownership interest in your home and other real estate can be very complicated with pitfalls for the unwary. As with the division of personal property, the rules and laws regarding the division of real estate vary from state to state. Consult with your lawyer about your rights and responsibilities after you have read this section and put together your worksheets.

Before you see your lawyer, gather the necessary documents and records about each piece of real estate. Get the documents not only for the property titled in your name, but for all the property in which you or your spouse has an ownership interest. This includes property that you own in either of your names alone, jointly with another person or property owned by a trust or business in which either of you have an interest.

Key Factors

There are six key factors about your real estate that affect the handling of the asset or the distribution of the net proceeds from the sale of the asset in a divorce. The factors are:

  • identification of the type of real estate and the type of ownership interest you have in the property

  • the ownership history of your real estate

  • real estate, income and capital gain taxes

  • debts, such as loans and tax liens, that are secured by the real estate the value of the real estate

  • the plans you must make to pay for and maintain the real estate during the pendency of the divorce and afterward

The following sections describe in detail these six factors.


As previously mentioned, most couples own an interest in real estate in the form of a family home. Other types of real estate that you may own are vacation property, rental property, commercial or office buildings, buildings on land leases, vacant land, mineral rights and other types of special use real estate. Whatever type of real property you may own, each one has unique features that could affect how you can utilize it in your divorce, especially in the context of a settlement agreement. The following sections of this chapter contain examples of some of the methods you might use.

How you hold title to the real estate may determine, in large part, what interest you and your spouse have in the real estate. Most married couples own property as tenants by the entirety and each spouse has an undivided one-half interest in the property. A divorce ends the ownership in tenancy by the entirety. Joint tenancy is similar to tenants by the entirety except that the owners are usually not married to one another. In joint tenancy and tenants by the entirety, if one of the owners dies, the deceased person’s interest passes to the other owner by operation of law. Another way of holding title is as tenants in common. The interest owned by each tenant in common is divisible and can be inherited by the owner’s heirs. This is customarily the way that unrelated persons, including divorced people, own real estate together. It may be the way that you and your ex-spouse own your real estate after the divorce.

History of Ownership

It is important to establish and document the history of your real estate ownership because each parcel’s history affects the property’s net worth. For example, real estate has tax implications that are usually assumed by the person receiving it in a divorce. Additionally, the history of your real estate helps you determine if the real estate that was owned before the marriage or inherited during the marriage is marital or separate property. Finally, the history of the land usage enables you to analyze the financial and environmental risk, if any, you could incur from owning the property.

Prepare a history of your home ownership for each property you have owned, including those which you have sold. Make notes about any miscellaneous information that is important about the real estate. Put together any source documents you used to back up your information. Organize your documents so that your history table is the first document in your real estate file. Then attach the supporting documents in descending or ascending order to the file folder. Some of the relevant information you need for each piece of real estate is:

  • Address, purchase price and date purchased

  • Down payment amount and source of funds for the down payment

  • Original loan amount and current balance

  • List of improvements you have made and their cost depreciation claimed on any prior year’s tax return

  • Insurance proceeds received from any claim

  • Costs to repair any damages or restoration costs

  • Date sold, sale price, costs of sale and net proceeds