Introduction. For over a century, the world has seen Nevada as a mecca of the “quickie divorce.” Even though the Nevada Supreme Court has recognized that Nevada’s liberal six-week residency period makes this state an attractive forum in which to obtain a divorce, the court, since 1913, has steadfastly held that that residency requires actual physical presence in this state for six weeks before filing for divorce and the intent to remain in the state for an indefinite period of time afterward. In its recent decision in Senjab v. Alhulaibi, 137 Nev. Adv. Op. 64 (2021), however, the Nevada Supreme Court broke with its long-standing tradition and ruled that the intent to remain in Nevada is no longer required to establish residency. Physical presence for six weeks prior to filing is now the only jurisdictional threshold for divorce purposes.
A little state history. Nevada’s residency requirement has an interesting and unique history. In 1861, Nevada’s territorial laws established that the length of residency required for divorce would be six months. When Nevada became a state in 1864, the residency requirement remained the same. Despite the half-year residency requirement, by the end of the 19th century, Nevada started gaining a reputation for its quickie divorces. This reputation alarmed both progressive and conservative groups which were, in their own ways, concerned about Nevada’s image and the implications divorce had on society in general. In 1913, these groups convinced the state legislature to raise the residency requirement to 12 months.
The 365 day residency requirement, of course, was bad for business and the state legislature, in its very next term, promptly returned the divorce residency requirement to six months in 1915. Nevada’s divorce industry boomed – particularly in Reno where divorce litigants were said to “Reno-vate” their lives or participate in the “Reno cure.” A dozen years later, in 1927, the Nevada legislature reduced the residency requirement even lower to three months.
In response to the Great Depression and the decline of its mining industry, Nevada tweaked its residency requirement once more in 1931 to a mere six weeks. At the same time, Nevada legalized gambling across the state. This liberalization of its laws paid huge dividends and set Nevada on its course to become a divorce and gaming capital of the world.
Despite the liberality of Nevada’s divorce laws, Nevada courts understood that some litigants would, as the Nevada Supreme Court puts it, “seek to speed their cause along in order to achieve a divorce in a time frame that suits their convenience rather than the requirements of the law.” In this regard, Nevada courts have historically taken the six-week residency requirement seriously. The Nevada courts invariably require the divorce petitioner and a “resident witness” to state under oath that the petitioner has been physically present in the state for six weeks (except for temporary absences) before filing the divorce complaint. Until the Senjab opinion, the courts also required the petitioner to swear that he or she had the intent to make Nevada his or her home for the indefinite future. If it could be proven that a party did not have the requisite intent to remain, the divorce decree was voidable and subject to set aside.
The Nevada Supreme Court abandons a century of jurisprudence. Now the intent to remain in Nevada is no longer required for divorce jurisdiction. In Senjab, the Nevada Supreme Court addressed Nevada’s divorce jurisdiction over two Syrian nationals who had moved to Nevada on F-1 and F-2 Visas in 2018. An F-1 Visa is a temporary student Visa, and an F-2 Visa is for a spouse or dependent of the F-1 Visa holder. Both Visas are considered “nonimmigrant” Visas, as they typically expired after the F-1 Visa holder finishes their academic program.
When the wife filed a complaint for divorce in Nevada in 2020, the husband moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The husband argued that, as a nonimmigrant, his wife could not establish the requisite intent to remain in Nevada. In support of his argument, the husband cited caselaw in which the Nevada Supreme Court explained that residence is synonymous with domicile, meaning subject-matter jurisdiction requires not only physical presence in Nevada (i.e., residence), but also intent to remain here (i.e. domicile). The wife, on the other hand, argued that “residence” under NRS 125.020 means residence and only residence, and, accordingly, domicile in Nevada is not required for divorce purposes.
In Senjab, the Nevada Supreme Court recognized that it had “long considered residence ‘synonymous with domicile’ for divorce jurisdiction.” Nonetheless, it reversed over 100 years of jurisprudence and held that, for jurisdictional purposes, “residence” means physical presence for the requisite six weeks and does not require an intent to remain. Because it was undisputed that the wife in Senjab had been physically present in Nevada for at least six weeks before she filed her divorce complaint, the Nevada Supreme Court concluded that Nevada had subject-matter jurisdiction over the parties’ divorce even though the wife did not have the requisite intent to remain in the state.
Senjab’s Aftermath. Some speculate that Senjab might cause an influx of non-residents seeking divorce in Nevada. This fear, however, is likely misplaced. For years, Nevada’s fellow states have been liberalizing their divorce laws which has made the divorce tourism to Nevada much less common. For this reason, the quickie divorce industry in Nevada waned decades ago. Further, if the courts and Nevada lawyers are honest, the “intent to remain” aspect of the Nevada’s residency requirement was always more form than it was substance. Even with an intent requirement, visitors to Nevada have been divorcing in Nevada for over a century. So, while the Nevada Supreme Court has now abandoned a long-standing rule of law, nothing much will change.