When you are ready to file for divorce there are two important questions to ask. Can I file for divorce in Virginia? And if the answer to that question is yes, where in Virginia should I file? These questions relate to legal concepts called jurisdiction and venue.
Jurisdiction is the power of the court to hear your case and enforce its ruling on you and your spouse. That means the court must have jurisdiction in order to grant your divorce. Each state has its own specific requirements for jurisdiction. In Virginia “no suit for annulling a marriage or for divorce shall be maintainable, unless one of the parties is and has been an actual bona fide resident and domiciliary of this Commonwealth for at least six months preceding the commencement of the suit.”
To be an actual bona fide resident in Virginia means to have a permanent home in the state. To be a domiciliary is a different concept and it means that you intend to remain in Virginia indefinitely. While you can be a resident of multiple states, you are only domiciled in one. To illustrate the difference between these two concepts, here is an example. Say you have a home in Richmond and generally live there, but also have a vacation home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where you spend your summers. In this example you would only be domiciled in Virginia and that would not change while you are in North Carolina. As another example, if you were a student coming to Virginia for school, you may or may not be domiciled in Virginia because it would depend on whether you intended to stay after graduating. You can demonstrate your intent to remain in Virginia by getting a new drivers license, registering to vote, or paying state taxes, among other methods.
For the majority of people it will be fairly easy to determine whether they can file for divorce in Virginia, but for military families it may be a more complicated question. Fortunately, Virginia has taken steps to address this issue. Any member of the armed services that has been stationed or lived in Virginia for six months prior to filing for divorce is allowed to do so in Virginia because it is assumed they are a bona fide resident and domiciliary of the state. This includes military personnel on bases located in Virginia and on ships with a home port in the state.
Once you have determined that Virginia’s courts have jurisdiction to grant your divorce, you know that you can file for divorce in the state. The next question is where in Virginia should you file? In Virginia each county and city has a circuit court that has jurisdiction to grant your divorce, but there are preferred venues.
Venue is the location of where your case will be heard. You have some discretion to choose the venue if you file for divorce and your choice can have ramifications that may impact your case. Choosing the right venue can save you time and money. In Virginia you can file for divorce in any city or county circuit court, but if your spouse objects the case may be transferred to a preferred venue. There are three levels of preference for venue in Virginia divorce cases. The first choice is the circuit court of the county or city where you and your spouse last lived as a couple. As a second choice if you file for divorce you may choose the circuit court of the county or city where your spouse resides, if you prefer. For a third option, if your spouse lives outside of Virginia you may choose the circuit court of the county or city where you reside. For example, say you and your spouse last lived together in Henrico County, and after you separated you moved to Hanover County, while your spouse moved to Goochland County. If you filed for divorce, Henrico County Circuit Court would be the preferred venue because that is where you both last resided as a couple. You would also have the option of filing in Goochland County Circuit Court because that is where your spouse resides. If your spouse moved to Maryland instead of Goochland County, you would have the option of filing in Hanover County. Again, these are just preferred venues and if your spouse does not object you are able to file in any county or city circuit court in Virginia.
References: Va. Code Ann. §20-97