Neither Personal nor Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court's dismissal of all claims in a divorce case except for the granting of the divorce itself. The trial court did not consider conservatorship, possession and access, child support or property division. The trial court stated that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over these claims because the wife and child lived in Italy and the parties' property was "not located within the court's jurisdiction."

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling. But the court of appeals discussed the case in terms of personal and subject-matter jurisdiction when it really was discussing "status" jurisdiction. What is status jurisdiction? A state always has jurisdiction to determine the marital status of its residents, even when a resident's spouse cannot be located or served. This principle holds true even though the court has no jurisdiction to divide marital property, adjudicate custody disputes, award alimony, or require the payment of child support. Because a court might not have the power to grant all relief sought or needed in a divorce case, the case is said to be "divisible."

The "divisible divorce" is rooted in a hoary old United States Supreme Court case called Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878). The Texas Supreme Court most recently applied the doctrine in Dawson-Austin v. Austin, 968 S.W.2d 319 (Tex. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1067 (1999), where the husband moved to Texas to file for divorce while the wife remained in California. The Texas Supreme Court held that the trial court had jurisdiction to grant the husband a divorce but not to divide the parties' property.

Thus, the San Antonio Court of Appeals reached the correct result (assuming that Texas had no jurisdiction over any of the parties' property, including intangible property such as a bank account), but the opinion might have been more clear had the court analyzed the case in terms of status jurisdiction and the divisible divorce.