I thought I was divorced but I’m still legally married. What do I do?

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Q. I thought I was divorced 20 years ago but it turns out I’m still legally married. He has changed his name on Facebook and remarried. What can I do?
— Surprised

A. This must have come as a huge shock.

You should immediately address this because your marital status can impact all aspects of your life.

There are many places where your lives still overlap, said Kenneth White, a certified matrimonial attorney with Shane and White in Edison.

For example, he said, each of you, being legally married, automatically have claims against each other’s estates. Your tax filing status is impacted, and in fact there may be consequences as a result of having inappropriately filed past tax returns, which is something you should review with your accountant, he said.

“As you are still legally married, both you and that individual remain exposed to claims from the other and perhaps to third parties as a result of your marital status,” White said. “For example, without a formal final judgment of divorce, your ex may make claims against any assets you may have acquired, as you may against his assets.”

Similarly, an allegation can be made that you have a responsibility to contribute to the satisfaction of debts and liabilities amassed by him, White said.

The only way to protect yourself is to take steps to secure a final judgment of divorce, White said.

The first step is to file a complaint for divorce, he said.

The date the complaint is filed will represent the date upon which the marital enterprise is ended, White said.

“To finalize the divorce and secure a final judgment of divorce, there are additional steps that will need to be taken, such as serving the complaint for divorce, likely negotiating and memorializing a settlement of all possible outstanding issues and making the necessary court appearance to provide testimony in support of securing the final judgment of divorce,” he said.

A settlement in a situation like this could be as simple as you and your ex simply confirming a waiver of any and all claims and rights either of you may have had against the other, White said. Further, you may be able to petition the court to grant you a divorce “nun pro tunc,” which means that the divorce can be deemed effective years ago, perhaps even the date you believed you were originally divorced, White said.

“I must strongly recommend that you address this head-on without delay,” White said. “Your ex will likely cooperate as this is something that benefits him as well as you, although he may have some extra explaining to do to his current wife — as he could not be legally married to another if his divorce from you was never finalized.”

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This story was originally published on March 4, 2021.

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