Destination divorces are turning heartbreaks into holidays

The end can be as festive as the beginning.
The end can be as festive as the beginning.
Image: Reuters/Enrique Castro-Mendivil
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I was sipping wine on the balcony of my apartment in Santa Monica with my soon-to-be ex-husband, our son fast asleep in the next room. “It feels like the Caribbean out here,” my almost-ex said. “I figured out why. That huge palm tree is making rustling sounds like in the Caribbean.”

“You’re right,” I said looking up at the fat palm across the street, rising over the buildings, taller than our townhouse back in Hoboken, New Jersey. We’d recently moved to California together, apart—after splitting up—and both still found ourselves dazzled by the splendor of our new environment. We’d been separated for two years by that point, but hadn’t yet made it legal. “I think we should get divorced in the Dominican Republic,” my almost-ex continued perhaps recalling our past tropical idylls.“It has such a great history.”

I knew something of that history. My parents divorced in the Dominican Republic in 1973 rather than accuse each other of moral or legal turpitude in our home state of Ohio—the only way you could end a marriage in most states and many countries back then. The first comprehensive no-fault divorce law in the US had just gone into effect in California three years earlier, under then-governor Ronald Reagan, but Ohio had not yet followed suit. The exact details varied by state and by country, but in general, before no-fault, you could only sue for divorce if you could prove you had the grounds acceptable in your state—like having a spouse who had committed adultery or abandonment, abused you, been incarcerated, or in some cases, proved unable to have “intimate relations.”

Or, you could travel to a place with more expansive divorce options. In the 1800s, people went to Indiana to divorce. In the early 1900s, Nevada was the hot spot for untying the knot. Between 1940 and 1960, at least 500,000 US citizens traveled to Mexico for a “quickie” divorce—including Marilyn Monroe, and also Johnny Carson, who divorced his first wife, Jody Wolcott, in 1963.  

By 1973, the Dominican Republic had begun offering a destination divorce package, a Spanish-language approximation of no-fault that included a lawyer and hotel room in the package price (approximately $900 as my mother remembers it). Only one spouse had to attend the hearing, and there was no residency requirement. My mother flew from Miami for the divorce, which was held at a courthouse that looked like a church, complete with stained glass windows and assembled guests. Joining her on the trip were three would-be ex-husbands. After the ceremony, the four divorcees walked back up the aisle on the arms of their lawyers-for-the-day, and then had drinks at the hotel bar. To my mother, it seemed like a money-maker concocted by the then-new Dominican government, but also a reasonably priced, rather nice way to end a marriage.

Today, every state has a version of no-fault divorce making the destination divorce less of a necessity. You still can divorce by mutual consent in the Dominican Republic with no residency requirement. But why fly to the Caribbean when you can file in the proximate comfort of your own county courthouse, then drown your sorrows (or celebrate your freedom) on imported rum without ever leaving the living room?

The destination divorce remains an important option emotionally, insists Jim Halfens, CEO of the DivorceHotel, a Dutch company offering three-day divorce packages at six hotels in the Netherlands and the Gideon Putnam Resort & Spa in Saratoga Springs, New York. “We take you out of the zone where you’re living so we can isolate you from all the influences—the mother-in-law, the new girlfriend, the new boyfriend. Everyone is advising you because they love you and want the best for you, but they’re blind to the fact that they’re not impartial.”

Meddlesome input aside, working out the details of who gets what and where the children will sleep is better done at a relaxing hotel than in a lawyer’s office, Halfens says, because the legal environment encourages defensiveness and even aggression. Away from all that, aided by a skilled mediator, you can make decisions rationally and fairly.

At the Georgian-style Gideon Putnam in New York, you and your once-beloved each stay in a private room, and a mediator works with you to draw up a fair, sane separation agreement. If you feel yourself coming undone, you can take a break to soak in Saratoga’s healing springs, or get a massage. Before traveling, clients have gone through an intake process with DivorceHotel mediator and US manager Michele Martin, who assesses their ability to cooperate, does some preliminary mediation work, and offers guidance on financial and/or psychological work they might need to do first. Neither children nor other family members or friends are invited.

DivorceHotel has arranged more than 100 destination divorces for its European clients, and about a dozen US divorces at the Gideon Putnam. In New York, the cost ranges from about $7,500-$12,000, including pre-trip mediation, an hour consultation with a lawyer for each spouse, lodging, onsite mediation, a lawyer to draft the final agreement, and follow-up support.“The feedback has been very positive,” Martin says. “All these couples have had children, and it’s so great to see them laughing together and getting along, having that good co-parenting relationship. Some say they get along better than they have in years.”

Halfens hopes to affiliate with more hotels in the US and abroad. In the meantime, his company will arrange a divorce at a hotel of your choosing, as long as it’s not a big business-style chain. “We work with boutique hotels,” he says. “The strength of our concept is the whole hotel philosophy, being a guest in a place where you find yourself comfortable.”

Rosswurm Law in Fort Wayne, Indiana, offers to help clients divorce at their favorite destination. A registered family law mediator comes with you to help you decide and divide (and presumably slather on sunscreen during breaks). Like the DivorceHotel, Rosswurm’s concept essentially is a three-day mediation marathon done in a relaxing, neutral setting.

Attorney Chris LePan joined Rosswurm in 2010. He says about 50% of the divorce cases he handles use mediation, though it took the company a while to get the destination divorce concept up and running because of Indiana’s complicated laws around representation. Like Halfens, LePan says travel can be key to a successful resolution. “When you have tight-knit family or friends who are kind of ‘street lawyers’ giving you advice, they are probably the biggest impediment to reasonable settlement. Sometimes the only way to avoid that is to remove the people from the outside influence.”

LePan recently flew to Scottsdale, Arizona with a divorcing couple who were overwhelmed by well-meaning input from friends and family back home. Under the sunny skies of Arizona, they reached agreement the first day. “Then room service came and brought them their meals while I typed up the agreement. They were able to then enjoy themselves separately for the rest of their trip,” he says. Getting out on the golf course or into the spa for a massage is an incentive to reach resolution. “You know you’ve booked three nights. If you can agree, you have the rest of the time to enjoy yourselves at the resort.”

Today’s destination divorce industry may sound like a wacky, stealth partnership between matrimonial lawyers and the massage therapy association. But DivorceHotel and options like it reflect two positive trends in modern divorce—more couples seeking a cooperative, mutually supportive dissolution to marriage, and more lawyers striving for a problem-solving, rather than adversarial, approach to helping couples unwed.

Despite the seeming extravagance of a luxury hotel, a trip that calms a couple may lead to a fairer, and less expensive, settlement. “The complicating factor is never the money. The complicating piece is when people haven’t reigned in their emotions. It doesn’t matter if you have a billion dollars or $10. It’s the emotions that complicate the case,” says Washington, DC-based family law attorney Regina DeMeo. The ugly, expensive divorces we see are usually the result of ever-escalating, anger-fueled court proceedings.

It’s important to remember that the legality of divorcing somewhere other than your home state varies. While the US generally recognizes foreign divorces, it doesn’t have to. (US states now have residency requirements making even the Nevada quickie divorce largely a thing of the past.) Any number of procedural details abroad might render your divorce invalid, such as the fact that neither of you actually live on a sunny Caribbean island. Your destination country may not have jurisdiction over certain aspects of your settlement, such as child support, custody or financial details, and your state court may or may not enforce your terms, an issue that matters if you ever want to sue your ex in the future. My mother said that when she and my father appealed to the Ohio court years later for help administering an aspect of their child-support agreement, the judge responded along the lines of, “If our court wasn’t good enough for your divorce then, we’re not good enough to help you now. Go ask the Dominican Republic.”

I like sipping lime spritzers poolside as much as the next person, but was a destination divorce right for us? Would we be the former couple who continued having fun together, handling even difficult upheavals with style and verve? We’d always been good at logistical details. Well, my ex is a logistical savant, and I’m smart enough to recognize a good plan when someone else suggests it. Would we bring this creativity and competence to divorce?

Actually, packing a suitcase, finding a sitter, and standing in the airport security line sounded like a lot of hassle on top of the stress of filling out forms. We had respected New York state enough to let it meddle in our romance when we wed; perhaps being a real resident of California meant inviting the court to oversee our divorce?

A good legal process depends more on finding supportive, even-tempered professionals or solid, do-it-yourself resources, than on choosing a nice hotel. Traveling to a romantic destination, I finally decided, is something I’d plan with my next love, whoever he may be.