Divorce in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)
Divorce Grounds and Residency Requirements
The CNMI is a no fault divorce jurisdiction, meaning that a couple may get divorced without proving any particular reason, by simply stating that irreconcilable differences have resulted in a breakdown of the marriage.1 However, a party may also request a divorce for grounds that attribute fault to the other spouse, such as adultery, cruel treatment, desertion, imprisonment of three or more years, insanity or willful neglect.2
A party may file for divorce without the consent of his or her spouse. If a divorce is contested, at least one of the parties must be a resident of the CNMI for ninety days or more before filing the divorce action.3 In practice, this means that if you have lived in the CNMI for more than ninety days, you may file for divorce here, regardless of where your spouse resides.
If both spouses consent to the divorce, and it is uncontested, then the residency requirements are much less strict, and the court may grant a divorce as long as one of the parties has resided in the CNMI for the seven days before the action was filed.4
Components of a Divorce
A divorce proceeding includes much more than simply ending a marriage. If the spouses have children, child custody and child support will be established during the divorce proceedings. Depending on the facts of the case, the court may also order spousal support. Another important part of a divorce proceeding is the distribution of marital property.
CNMI courts may issue temporary orders concerning any of these issues while a divorce action is pending.5
Marital Property in the CNMI
The CNMI is a community property state, which means that each spouse has an undivided, one-half interest in all property acquired during the marriage.6 All property of divorcing spouses is presumed to be marital property and will be classified by the court as marital property unless the spouse who claims the property as his or hers alone proves that it is individual property.7 Individual property includes property that was acquired by one of the spouses before the marriage, or by gift or inheritance during the marriage, along with the appreciation of such property.8 Keep in mind, however, that when individual property is mixed with marital property, the individual property becomes marital property.9 There are specific rules about the characterization of certain kinds of property, such as the recovery from a personal injury, life insurance policies, and deferred employment benefits (retirement benefits).10
Spouses can enter agreements about the characterization of marital property, either before a marriage, during a marriage, or during divorce proceedings. Such an agreement can vary most of the effects of the CNMI’s Marital Property Act.11 There are some exceptions, for example, a marital property agreement cannot remove the spouses’ duty act in good faith toward each other, or impede the rights of third parties such as creditors, bona fide purchasers, or the parties’ children.12
Divorcing couples should take extra care when deciding on the distribution of marital property, not only because the distribution of marital property has a significant effect on the future financial well being of the spouses, but also because the court does not have continuing jurisdiction to modify marital property distribution agreements after a divorce decree has issued.13 This means, that in most cases, if you agree to a certain property distribution and the court adopts your agreement as part of the divorce decree, you will usually not be able to return to court and ask for a modification of the property agreement over your ex-spouse’s objection, even if your circumstances or your ex-spouse’s circumstances change drastically.
Divorce is a common proceeding, but the laws governing marital property distribution can be quite complicated, especially if you and your spouse have property in many different jurisdictions.
Given the intensity of emotion experienced during a divorce, it may be tempting to rush to a conclusion, and avoid the short-term investment of time, energy and money necessary to accurately and completely inventory and value the marital estate.
However, turning a blind eye in the short-term will have long lasting effects. Simply put, your current emotions should not outweigh your future financial security.
If you or your spouse is a resident of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and you are considering divorce, you should talk with an attorney about how these laws apply to the facts of your particular case.
Note: The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands includes the islands of Rota, Tinian and Saipan. The information provided here applies to all three islands.
Note: The CNMI statutes referenced here can be accessed online for free at the website of the CNMI Law Revision Commission.
Note: We hope the information provided on this page helps you understand the basic legal framework for divorce in the CNMI. The information provided here, however, is general, and is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice. For a more in depth understanding of the CNMI divorce laws, and for advice on how those laws apply to the facts of your specific case, you should contact an attorney.
1 8 CMC § 1331(g)
2 8 CMC § 1331(a)-(f), (h)-(i)
3 8 CMC § 1332(a)
4 8 CMC § 1332(b)
5 8 CMC § 1311
6 8 CMC § 1820(c); Effective February 22, 1991, the CNMI adopted a version of the Uniform Marital Property Act drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws.
7 8 CMC § 1820(b)
8 8 CMC § 1820(g)
9 8 CMC § 1829
10 8 CMC §§ 1820(g)(6), 1827, 1828
11 8 CMC § 1815
13 8 CMC § 1311; Reyes v. Reyes, 2001 MP 13 ¶ 19; and Ada v. Calvo, 2012 MP 11 ¶ 17.
This article was written by Claire Kelleher-Smith. Claire is an associate attorney at O’Connor Berman Dotts and Banes practicing family law in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. She has represented clients in a variety of family law proceedings including divorce and parentage proceedings. Claire has a client-centered practice, and works with each client to seek an outcome suited to the client’s unique situation. She enjoys practicing family law and believes that although people usually need a family attorney during the most difficult periods of their lives, the legal system can be used to navigate those trying times and to establish the framework for moving towards brighter futures and healthier relationships.