IN trial court can divide property after German divorce, COA rules

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A woman who was divorced in a German court can pursue the division of her marital property in an Indiana trial court, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled.

Olga and John Sims are American citizens who moved to Germany together in 2018 for John’s job. The couple separated while living in Germany, and Olga filed a divorce petition in a German court.

The German court dissolved the marriage but determined it lacked jurisdiction to divide their marital property, writing, “In the case of countries … such as … the USA, the international jurisdiction of German courts to decide on a pension plan is questionable and largely denied.”

The pension at issue was John’s pension, which he earned as a civilian contractor for government and private defense contractors, including the U.S. Department of Defense.

Meanwhile, John had moved back to the United States and settled in Johnson County, Indiana. Thus, Olga petitioned the Johnson Circuit Court to assume jurisdiction of the dissolution action, specifically asking the trial court to rule on the issue of division of marital property.

The trial court denied her motion, finding it was barred by res judicata because the German court was a court of competent jurisdiction that had rendered a decision on the division of property on the merits.

The trial court then denied Olga’s motion to correct error, expressing frustration that it was “impossible to accurately determine” what had occurred in the German proceedings because the foreign court’s rulings were “very difficult to understand.” Ultimately, the Indiana court determined there was “simply too much that is not known by this court to grant the motion to correct error.”

In reversing in Olga’s favor, the Court of Appeals agreed with her argument that the German court did not, in fact, render a judgment on the merits on her request for division of marital property.

“We sympathize with the trial court’s frustration in interpreting the German court’s ruling,” Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote Thursday in In the Matter of the Marriage of: Olga Sims v. John Daniel Sims, 22A-DN-639. “But whatever ambiguities may exist in those rulings, they clearly show that the German court did not render a judgment on the merits of Wife’s request for division of marital property.

“Thus, res judicata does not prevent the trial court from considering Wife’s request to divide marital property, and Wife has demonstrated prima facie error in the trial court’s denial of her motion to correct error,” Pyle wrote. “Accordingly, we reverse the trial court and remand this matter for further proceedings.”

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