Divorce Family Law High Net-Worth Divorce Marital Property Division

Secret Divorce Ends in Lawsuit

After 20 years of what she believed to be marriage, Christina Carta Villa just learned that her husband secretly divorced her just after the two were wed.

Secret Divorce Ends in Lawsuit

Cristina Carta Villa, 59, is now suing her 90-year-old husband, Gabriel Villa, after learning that he obtained a secret divorce just four months after the two were married. It seems Gabriel was looking to “protect his assets.” She only just learned of the divorce after she noticed that a recent tax bill did not include her name. After doing some research through a private investigator, she found out that Gabriel had obtained a legal divorce in the Dominican Republic shortly after their 1994 wedding.

Love Story

According to Cristina, it was “love at first sight” when she met the then 70-year-old lawyer and travel agent. She was 39 at the time, and working as a teacher of Italian literature at Boston College. The pair moved into together, were soon married, and then had a son, Lorenzo. For the past 20 years, the couple has divided their time between two homes: one in Manhattan and one in France.

That all changed when she noticed that a tax bill did not include her name, and that her husband had been filing taxes as a single man.

The Secret Divorce

It appears the divorce took place in the Dominican Republic, and claimed “incompatibility of temperaments” as the reason. Neither Gabriel nor Cristina were present for the divorce proceedings as Gabriel had appointed a representative to push the divorce through. Cristina is claiming that the divorce was “illegal and fraudulent,” and that Gabriel is now using the divorce as a way to rob Cristina of what should be legally rightfully hers. She has brought a lawsuit against him in an attempt to annul the divorce seeing as she was not aware of it, and thus had not agreed to it.

All of this has come to light in the fact that Gabriel is now attempting to use the divorce as a way to show Cristina is not a legal owner of the condo he is trying to sell to his daughter. Cristina is not consenting to the sale.

It seems odd though. Why would a man that filed for a secret divorce, citing “incompatibility of temperaments,” remain with the same woman for 20 years? During that time, according to Cristina, she was at his side through health scares and hospital stays. Gabriel had even granted her power of attorney to make his medical decisions.

“I realize now that during all these years of joy and happiness, and of difficult moments we shared together, my husband lied to me and had the Dominican divorce on the back of his mind. It’s what is hurting me the most,” she said.

Prenuptial Agreement


It’s odd that, Gabriel being a lawyer, and obviously aware of the legalities of marriage, would not have rather considered a prenuptial agreement instead of a secret divorce. A prenuptial agreement is an outline of what will happen to property gained during a marriage, while also outlining each spouse’s separate property prior to the marriage. It’s a great way to protect your assets, and does not have to have the stigma it carries when both people enter into it with the mindset of it being a business agreement.

Prenuptial Agreements in High-Net-Worth Marriages

Often when a couple comes together, and both parties already have established high net worth individually, it’s crucial that a prenuptial agreement is drafted. A licensed family law attorney can help you put together a prenuptial agreement if you and your spouse want to go down that route. It is also advised that you both seek your own personal attorneys for the drafting of this document, so that both parties are able to feel they’ve come to that agreement on their own terms. Though divorce is often a very emotionally draining situation, in high-net-worth divorces a prenuptial agreement can help it from becoming an even more bitter debacle.

Prenuptial Agreement Mistakes

When drafting a prenuptial agreement, it’s important to remember that it can be ruled as “invalid” if there are mistakes. Here are some mistakes that you’ll want to avoid. It’s also recommended that you work with a family law attorney to avoid these mistakes:

  • Same Legal Representation – Each spouse should have his or her own attorney. An attorney will explain everything contained in the prenuptial agreement independently of the other spouse. Working with separate attorneys ensures the final agreement is signed voluntarily, and neither spouse feels pressured to sign.
  • Signed Under Duress – “Under duress” means a under pressure or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A prenuptial agreement can be found invalid if one party signed under duress and did not have the mental capacity to understand what they were signing.
  • Signed Too Close to the Wedding – A prenuptial should be signed one to three months prior to the wedding. If not, it’s easy for a party to argue later on that they were  coerced into signing. Each spouse should have time to deliberate on the agreement before signing.
  • No Full Disclosure – Disclose all assets and debts.
  • Child Support Provisions – Child support and custody should not be a part of a prenuptial agreement.
  • Biased – The prenuptial agreement should not show any bias to one party.
  • Unenforceable Provisions – Unusual provisions such as one spouse is responsible for dishes can deem an agreement unenforceable.
  • Oral Agreement – A prenuptial agreement must be in written form to be valid. Each spouse and each spouse’s attorney should have a copy.
  • Ambiguous Writing –  Ambiguous wording can be challenged in court. Make sure the writing is all clear and concise.

In cases such as the Villas,’ under a prenuptial agreement, if the condo was obtained during the course of the marriage, it would indeed be considered “community property,” and thus subject to Cristina’s approval for the sale. During a divorce (and a marriage) it’s important to be aware of what is considered “community” and “separate” property.

Marital Property Division

Property is anything that can be bought or sold, or anything that has a financial value. This includes: houses, cars, furniture, clothing, bank accounts, businesses, etc. Within that, there are two forms of property when it comes to a marriage: community property and separate property. Community property is anything earned or acquired during the course of the marriage. Separate property belongs to one spouse. States make their own determinations on what counts as separate property. A family law attorney would be able to help you determine what is “separate property” based on your state’s laws.

Court Decision

If you are not able to settle how the marital property will be divided through mediation or collaborative law, a court will decide how this property will be divided. A judge will sign off on the agreement once it has been determined. Until that point, any marital property will belong to both of you, regardless of who is living in it, using it, or has control of it.

Other Considerations

There are four other steps that need to be considered when diving marital property:

  1. Identify the assets owned by you and your spouse
  2. Categorize all assets as marital or non-marital property
  3. A value will need to be assigned to the assets
  4. Devise a plan for the division of assets that is in accordance with state laws

No Fault Divorce Laws


Though most states separate the division of marital property from grounds for divorce due to no fault divorce laws, most states do consider any financial misconduct when it comes to dividing marital property. What this means is if you or your spouse has foolishly spent money then you or your spouse will most likely be penalized when it comes to dividing marital property.

Separate Join Financial Obligations

If you feel the division of marital assets might be a contentious point between you are your spouse, you might want to consider separating financial obligations prior to starting the divorce process. Marital property does not only mean furniture and household items, but also joint credit accounts. Each spouse should have access to a complete set of all financial documents. You’ll also want to close all joint credit card accounts. If you’re not able to fully separate the accounts, draft a formal written agreement outlining the activity on the remaining joint accounts. Freeze any investment assets – this will ensure neither spouse misuses funds until everything has been agreed upon. You might also want to consider changing the title on your home to read “tenants in common” until the final agreement regarding marital property has been decided upon.

Working with a Divorce Attorney

It’s always advised that you consider working with a family law attorney. They will be able to advise you on any number of issues, including: child support, spousal support, marital property division, child visitation, etc… A lawyer from the expert law firm of Divorce Law LA will be able to guide you through the divorce process. The Divorce & Family Law Offices of Divorce Law LA will provide you with the highest level of expertise and professionalism from our skilled attorneys. Our Divorce and Family Law Practice spans a wide spectrum of areas that include: divorce, high net-worth divorce, marital property division, child custody and visitation, and child support.

Divorce Law LA

33 S. Catalina Ave. Ste. 202

Pasadena, Ca. 91106

(626) 478-3550