The Man Who Secretly Divorced His Wife
And How She Discovered the Truth 20 Years Into Their Marriage
Gabriel Villa and Cristina Carta met in 1994 at a mutual friend’s house. They were soon married, and Carta left her job as an Italian literature teacher at Boston College to jet set around the world with her new husband, a successful travel agent and lawyer 30 years her senior.
To protect his property and hedge his bets long-term, Villa divorced his new bride of just four months in the Dominican Republic and did so in secret. He hired lawyers to act as proxies before a judge in Santo Domingo, the Carribean country’s capital city.
Meanwhile, back home in New York, his wife had no idea.
U. S. Recognition of Foreign Final Decree of Divorce
Over the years, celebrities have made headlines by divorcing abroad. Among the list are Mariah Carey, Jane Fonda, Liz Taylor, Lisa Marie Presley, Diana Ross, Sylvestre Stallone, and Michael Jackson. That’s quite the list!
Calling the legality of these divorces (in the U.S.) into question means taking into account the countries in which they are filed. When it comes to the Dominican Republic, it boils down to the couple’s home state’s laws to decide. Not all 50 states in the country will consider that fancy Dominican decree valid.
Only New York, Maryland, and a handful of others consider unilateral divorces (where only one party signs) legal. Documents have to be filed in the couple’s home state, and the divorce decree has to be registered for that to happen.
In fact, states like California won’t honor it unless both parties lived in the Dominican Republic long enough to establish residency. Generally, that’s six months.
All that said, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that unilateral divorces are unconstitutional, calling them, “…too doubtful…” Government agencies (such as the IRS, Social Security Administration, and United States Military) will not honor a final decree of divorce that was obtained under questionable circumstances.
The Dominican Republic is one of a handful of countries in the world where one could go from married to single-and-ready-to-mingle in 24 hours or less.
Their laws don’t require either party to be a Dominican citizen or resident. However, one of them (either the husband or wife) must attend the proceeding in person. The other can choose to sit it out by filing a type of power of attorney form. A proxy will then be assigned in his or her place. The entire process costs about $1,500, and two weeks later, a final decree is sent out, translated into English of course, to each party at their home address. If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is!
It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is!
Challenging a Divorce Decree
In November 2015, Cristina, 59, arrived home to the New York apartment she shared with her husband and checked her mail. In the stack of circulars was a property tax bill. Utterly unremarkable, except for the address label. Where once her name appeared next to her husband’s as co-owner of their flat, her name was now nowhere to be found.
She hired an attorney to dig into the matter for her. They uncovered documents Gabriel Villa, 90, filed with their local tax office. These documents included finalized, Dominican divorce papers he submitted to the tax agency as proof that Cristina no longer had ownership of the property.
Research revealed Gabriel ended his brand new union only four months after their wedding, citing “incompatibility of temperaments,” calling his wife, “unbearable.”
To have secretly divorced Cristina, he had to hire Dominican lawyers to serve as proxies for both her husband and her. Although unilateral divorces are legal there, divorces in which neither party is a part of the proceedings are not. Cristina argues that in addition to that, a formal announcement must be published in a Dominican newspaper — something that wasn’t done in her case. Neither was the so-called divorce registered in New York.
In court papers she filed before a Manhattan Supreme Court, Cristina claimed she has, “no recollection of [giving] any authorization to anyone to proceed with a divorce, or even thinking about divorce from the man she had just recently married.” It was his failed attempt at hedging his bets and protecting his assets, according to the New York Post.
In her lawsuit challenging the divorce, she alleges he was trying to steal their $1.4 million apartment out from under her to sell to his adult daughter.
Despite Having Secretly Divorced Her, She Still Loves Him
What’s amazing is the way Cristina describes their marriage. In 20 years the couple raised a son and owned homes in New York and France. They lived a fancy life, flying all over the world.
She told Kathianne Boniello of the New York Post that, “…despite our age difference, it was love at first sight.” She says that despite all the mess and decades of lies, “It was and somehow it’s still a great love.” She describes her near-centenarian husband as, “…a very charismatic man, strong, intelligent, and very charming….”
At one point in their marriage, Gabriel, now 90, fell gravely ill and spent time in a hospital. In his moment of need, he named Cristina his health care proxy and gave her power of attorney over his assets.
It’s a strange version of unconditional love. Regardless of what she says about how wonderful their romance was or is, she is, in fact, still suing him. Her arguments are valid. She has a point. What he did was wrong, sloppy, and deceitful.
Where was all this concern for his assets when they married? Prenuptial agreements were invented long before 1994. Even, if the practicing lawyer had absent-mindedly moved past that, post-nuptial agreements existed then, too.
Overall, the case is incredibly confusing. Gabriel Villa’s motives are unclear. A successful attorney in his own right, one assumes he had to have known about the technicalities and obstacles he’d face as a result of his decision. Successfully becoming unilaterally secretly divorced from his wife in the Dominican Republic wouldn’t just be difficult to pull off. It would be illegal.
Then, there’s the fact that he remained committed to her and trusted her with his life. Their relationship was far from over four months after it began (when he filed his petition to end it). The 20-year, “love at first sight,” as she calls it, was just beginning. And whether things between them were as great as she claims or as “unbearable,” as he swore they were, he stayed in it.
It could be that at the time the then 70-year-old man felt he had valid reasons to question Cristina’s motives for marrying a man 30 years older than her. But if he did, and was serious enough about it to secretly divorce her, why didn’t he just leave her once it was done? What could he possibly have gained from a 20-year-long deceit?
The self-described, “…caring wife and mother,” concedes to her husband’s betrayal. “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,” she decides.
It’s possible that once he divorced his wife, he spent 20 years waiting for the opportune moment to play his ace. It could’ve been his way of controlling the marriage, a ruse of sorts.
Gaining sole ownership over their apartment may have just been a convenient reason to use his hidden token. Cristina admits, “It’s what’s hurting me the most.”
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