Simons v. Miami Beach First National Bank/Opinion of the Court

927380Simons v. Miami Beach First National Bank — Opinion of the CourtWilliam J. Brennan, Jr.
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion

United States Supreme Court

381 U.S. 81

Simons  v.  Miami Beach First National Bank

 Argued: March 10, 1965. --- Decided: May 3, 1965

The question to be decided in this case is whether a husband's valid Florida divorce, obtained in a proceeding wherein his nonresident wife was served by publication only and did not make a personal appearance, unconstitutionally extinguished her dower right in his Florida estate.

The petitioner and Sol Simons were domiciled in New York when, in 1946, she obtained a New York separation decree that included an award of monthly alimony. Sol Simons moved to Florida in 1951 and, a year later, obtained there a divorce in an action of which petitioner had valid constructive notice but in which she did not enter a personal appearance. [1] After Sol Simons' death in Florida in 1960, respondent, the executor of his estate, offered his will for probate in the Probate Court of Dade County, Florida. Petitioner appeared in the proceeding and filed an election to take dower under Florida law, rather than have her rights in the estate governed by the terms of the will, which made no provision for her. [2] The respondent opposed the dower claim, asserting that since Sol Simons had divorced petitioner she had not been his wife at his death, and consequently was not entitled to dower under Florida law. Petitioner thereupon brought the instant action in the Circuit Court for Dade County in order to set aside the divorce decree and to obtain a declaration that the divorce, even if valid to alter her marital status, did not destroy or impair her claim to dower. The action was dismissed after trial, and the Florida District Court of Appeal for the Third District affirmed. 157 So.2d 199. [3] The Supreme Court of Florida declined to review the case, 166 So.2d 151. We granted certiorari, 379 U.S. 877, 85 S.Ct. 150, 13 L.Ed.2d 85. We affirm.

Petitioner's counsel advised us during oral argument that he no longer challenged the judgment below insofar as it embodied a holding that the 1952 Florida divorce was valid and terminated the marital status of the parties. We therefore proceed to the decision of the question whether the Florida courts unconstitutionally denied petitioner's dower claim. [4]

Petitioner argues that since she had not appeared in the Florida divorce action the Florida divorce court had no power to extinguish any right which she had acquired under the New York decree. She invokes the principle of Estin v. Estin, 334 U.S. 541, 68 S.Ct. 1213, 92 L.Ed. 1561, where this Court decided that a Nevada divorce court, which had no personal jurisdiction over the wife, had no power to terminate a husband's obligation to provide the wife support as required by a pre-existing New York separation decree. As this was so, we there ruled that New York, in giving continued effect to the maintenance provisions of its separation decree, did not deny full faith and credit to the Nevada decree. See U.S.Const., Art. IV, § 1. [5] The application of the Estin principle to the instant case, petitioner contends, dictates that we hold the Florida courts to their constitutional duty to give effect to the New York decree, inherent in which is a preservation of her dower right.

The short answer to this contention is that the only obligation imposed on Sol Simons by the New York decree, and the only rights granted petitioner under it, concerned monthly alimony for petitioner's support. Unlike the ex-husband in Estin, Sol Simons made the support payments called for by the separate maintenance decree notwithstanding his ex parte divorce. In making these payments until his death he complied with the full measure of the New York decree; when he died there was consequently nothing left of the New York decree for Florida to dishonor.

This conclusion embodies our judgment that there is nothing in the New York decree itself that can be construed as creating or preserving any interest in the nature of or in lieu of dower in any property of the decedent, wherever located. Petitioner refers us to no New York law that treats such a decree as having that effect, or, for that matter, to any New York law that has such an effect irrespective of the existence of the decree. We think it clear that the burden of showing this rested upon petitioner. Cf. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Duel, 324 U.S. 154, 160, 65 S.Ct. 573, 89 L.Ed. 812; Alaska Packers Assn. v. Industrial Accident Comm'n, 294 U.S. 532, 547 548, 55 S.Ct. 518, 523-524, 79 L.Ed. 1044. It follows that insofar as petitioner's argument rests on rights created by the New York decree or by New York law, the denial of her dower by the Florida courts was not a violation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Cf. Armstrong v. Armstrong, 350 U.S. 568, 76 S.Ct. 629, 100 L.Ed. 705.

Insofar as petitioner argues that since she was not subject to the jurisdiction of the Florida divorce court its decree could not extinguish any dower right existing under Florida law, Vanderbilt v. Vanderbilt, 354 U.S. 416, 418, 77 S.Ct. 1360, 1 L.Ed.2d 1456, the answer is that under Florida law no dower right survived the decree. The Supreme Court of Florida has said that dower rights in Florida property, being inchoate, are extinguished by a divorce decree predicated upon substituted or constructive service. Pawley v. Pawley, Fla., 46 So.2d 464. [6]

It follows that the Florida courts transgressed no constitutional bounds in denying petitioner dower in her ex-husband's Florida estate.



  1. Petitioner was served by publication while still living in New York and received copies of the order for publication and the divorce complaint. She did not enter an appearance in the Florida proceeding on advice of counsel.
  2. 21 Fla.Stat.Ann.1964, § 731.34, F.S.A. provides as follows:
  3. Petitioner attacked the validity of the divorce on the grounds: (1) that Sol Simons had defrauded the Florida courts by falsely claiming residence, (2) that the New York decree was a bar to the divorce suit and that Sol Simons had defrauded the court by failing to disclose the prior New York decree, (3) that the divorce decree on its face showed want of jurisdiction and (4) that after petitioner received notice of the divorce suit Sol Simons lulled her into inaction. The trial court made findings of fact adverse to petitioner on all points and dismissed the suit with prejudice. In affirming, the Florida District Court of Appeal held that '(t)he prior New York separate maintenance decree was not a bar to a divorce suit by the husband, and his failure to disclose it in his complaint was not a fraud on the court. * * * Any affirmative defense the prior suit may have afforded should have been presented in the divorce suit.' 157 So.2d 199, at 200.
  4. Neither the Florida trial court nor the District Court of Appeal expressly discussed the merits of petitioner's claim that the divorce, even if valid, did not destroy or impair her dower rights. But since Florida law allows dower only to a decedent's wife, see note 6, infra, we interpret the Florida courts' decisions sustaining the validity of the divorce as also holding that the divorce extinguished petitioner's dower rights.
  5. 'Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State * * *.'
  6. In Pawley the Supreme Court of Florida distinguished the dower right from the right to support, saying at 46 So.2d 464, 472 473, n. 2, 28 A.L.R.2d 1358.

'In this, if not in every jurisdiction, right of dower can never be made the subject of a wholly independent issue in any divorce suit. It stands or falls as a result of the decree which denies or grants divorce. It arises upon marriage, as an institution of the law. The inchoate right of dower has some of the incidents of property. It partakes of the nature of a lien or encumbrance. It is not a right which is originated by or is derived from the husband; nor is it a personal obligation to be met or fulfilled by him, but it is a creature of the law, is born at the marriage altar, cradled in the bosom of the marital status as an integral and component part thereof, survives during the life of the wife as such and finds its sepulcher in divorce. Alimony too is an institution of the law but it is a personal obligation of the husband which is based upon the duty imposed upon him by the common law to support his wife and gives rise to a personal right of the wife to insist upon, if she be entitled to, it. It has none of the incidents of, and is in no sense a lien upon or interest in, property. Consequently, the right of the wife to be heard on the question of alimony should not, indeed lawfully it cannot, be destroyed by a divorce decree sought and secured by the husband in an action wherein only constructive service of process was effected.'

A petition for writ of certiorari to this Court alleged, 'Petitioner is thus permitted to file another suit for alimony, but her contract of marriage is annulled and her inchoate dower rights destroyed without due process of law.' Brief for petitioner, p. 9, Pawley v. Pawley, No. 325, October Term, 1950. The petition was denied, 340 U.S. 866, 71 S.Ct. 90, 95 L.Ed. 632.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse