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Mexico’s quick divorces

Domestic Relations: The Perils of Mexican Divorce

Endless publicity had made it abundantly plain: Actor Richard Burton had been in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for six months making a new movie, Night of the Iguana. Nor was it any secret that his wife Sybil had felt no urge to join him there. But last week Sybil Burton traveled to Mexico by proxy. A local lawyer appeared for her in a State of Jalisco court, and she divorced Burton for «cruelty.» He will marry Liz Taylor «as soon as possible—the sooner the better,» after she sheds Eddie Fisher. For Liz, 31, Dick will be No. 5.The Burtons thus became one of the 10,000 or so non-Mexican couples who each year consummate a Mexican divorce in the not-quite-polygamous marriage ritual that has been called «serial monogamy.» Mexican divorces are relatively inexpensive and remarkably swift.

Divorce-law experts insist that the situation is not all that bad, that a correctly handled Mexican divorce is perfectly valid in most of the 50 states. But if someone contests it later, defending a Mexican quickie-cheapie can prove long-drawn-out, costly and uncertain.

Instant Residence. At the start all seems wondrously easy. The average wife who hates her average husband and has an average competent lawyer, can get on a plane to El Paso, say, and be back home the next day—divorced. From El Paso she crosses the border to Juarez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. She makes her way past bars and tacky tourist shops to the Municipal Palace, where she meets a Mexican lawyer by prearrangement, signs the great registration ledger of the clerk of the court, pays one dollar, and gets a slip of paper certifying that she is indeed in Juárez. In Most cases it is not even necessary for either party to appear. Instead a proxy from authorizes a Mexican attorney to appear in court and request the divorce on behalf of the absent client.

With the paper she acquires instant residence, the chief attraction of Mexican divorces. (Nevada and Idaho require all of six weeks; Alabama, once an easy-divorce state, now requires a full year’s residence.) It takes only another few minutes for the judge to grant a divorce; by Chihuahua law, his court now has jurisdiction over the visitor. All further steps will be handled by the Mexican lawyer. The new divorcee gets her elaborate Spanish decree with its impressive ribbons and seals. Legal costs can amount to as little as $500, or as much as the traffic will bear.

The practice until recently has been to arrange for two Mexican lawyers in Juárez, one with power of attorney for the absent spouse. The judge also incorporates into the divorce the Stateside agreement in which husband and wife settled property, alimony, and custody of children.

Most Mexican divorces have the consent of both husband and wife, and few people back out later. But when third parties—disinherited children, later spouses, pension fund administrators—have an interest in the case, they may have grounds for successful court attacks.