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By Steve Limtiaco

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 15) – The number of divorces on Guam is expected to drop dramatically this year, not because couples are trying harder to make their marriages work, but because it is now more difficult for non-residents to end their marriage using the local court system.

Until this month, non-resident couples could get an uncontested divorce in the Superior Court of Guam without ever setting foot on island. It was that way for two decades.

Lawmakers changed that when they passed the budget bill last September, saying they no longer want Guam to be a divorce mill. They added a 7-day residency requirement for uncontested divorces, which means the husband or wife needs to be on Guam for at least seven days before divorce papers can be filed here.

The change took effect January 1.

Sen. Benjamin Cruz, D-Piti, said it actually was the last Legislature that tried to end non-resident divorces, but they forgot to change part of the law, so those divorces continued to happen. The current Legislature simply followed through and cleared up the law so the original intent could happen, he said.

Attorney Ronald Moroni, who said off-island divorces were a significant portion of his law firm's clients last year, speculated that as many as 700 divorces filed in the Superior Court of Guam each year involve off-island couples.

Altogether, 2,494 divorce cases were filed in the Superior Court of Guam last year, according to the clerk's office.

"I think it's gonna drop significantly," Moroni said. "I think it's really too early to tell, but based on the response I'm getting to the new law, it's going to be significantly less than it was last year."

The cost of traveling to the Western Pacific and staying here for several days has become a limiting factor.

"It's much more expensive if they have to travel here and take off work for seven days, and a lot of people just aren't able to do that," Moroni said.

Guam divorces are less attractive with the new residency requirement, but places like the Dominican Republic still offer divorces with only one day of residency, Moroni said.

"A lot of states won't recognize a Dominican Republic divorce. It would seem that every state would have to recognize the Guam divorce," he said.

But attorney Don Parkinson, former speaker of the Guam Legislature, said he stopped the lucrative practice of handling quickie divorces because the divorces were being challenged by U.S. immigration on the issue of whether or not the couples are bona fide residents of Guam.

"I quit doing them because I got sick of people writing me, upset that their divorces weren't being accepted by immigration. This is a big problem," Parkinson said. "It was clear to me that based on the position immigration was taking, (giving couples a Guam divorce) was taking money from most of my customers on false pretenses, and I don't do that. That's why I stopped."

But Parkinson said he believes the new law and its specific 7-day residency requirement solves the immigration concerns. In fact, he said he probably will start handling divorce cases again.

While Parkinson predicts an initial drop in the number of divorce cases here, he predicts an increase in some types of divorces. Under the new law, Guam's residency requirement still is much shorter than any other place in the United States, he noted.

"I think this is going to increase the number of divorces in some categories. In other categories it's not going to make a difference," Parkinson said. "For some types of immigration problems, you've got to be divorced by a certain time in order to do certain things. The shortest time for a divorce in the states is I believe six week's residence."

Parkinson said the old divorce law was passed during the 17th Legislature as a way of bringing more money to the island by allowing for mail-order divorces.

"It was an important source of income. Aside from the moral issue, it is non-polluting. It brings money into the island and no money goes off. It was a source of significant income to several attorneys, including myself," he said.

Moroni said the old divorce law benefitted American military personnel, who often move too frequently to meet residency requirements for a divorce, as well as American civilians living overseas.

It also benefitted residents of states with strict divorce prerequisites, including the Carolinas, which require lengthy waiting periods before a divorce can move forward, Moroni said.

"So some people would come here to just to make it a little quicker than they were able to do it in their own states," he said. "California had a mandatory six-month waiting period, and that prompted some people to call us."

January 16, 2006

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