If the spouse of the President of the United States filed for divorce, would

  1. the President have any claim of immunity from any litigation that followed (e.g. the division of assets in the matrimonial pot, child custody, etc.),

  2. would all the proceedings be fully held in private,

  3. could the President be compelled to take the stand and

  4. what would happen if the President refused to do so?

  • 4
    What I want to know is whether his wife gets half the White House. (This was a joke, but actually there could be a question of claims to items received during the Presidency POTUS has a right to buy when he leaves office) Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 4:05
  • Divorce is a civil matter. There is no rights to civil cases being private. Children, the eldery, at risk youth may all cause a case to be done in private but this is done on an adhoc basis.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 17:56
  • @IllusiveBrian POTUS doesn't own the White House, so a court can award it in a property division, but courts have awarded possession of a Governor or Mayor's official residence to a spouse in temporary orders pending permanent resolution of a case. The same could arguably be done for the residential parts of the White House although jurisdictional issues of a state court granting a spouse and/or children use of a federal building might be a problem not faced in parallel state cases.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 0:23

1 Answer 1


If the spouse of the US president filed for divorce, would

a) the President have any claim of immunity from any litigation that followed (e.g. the division of assets in the matrimonial pot, child custody etc.),

The President could claim it, but the President wouldn't win.

Notably, a number of state governors and mayors have divorced while in office, and other foreign heads of state have been divorced while in office.

For example, a U.K. court recently handled the divorce of a UAE monarch (over his objections to jurisdiction on sovereign immunity grounds), applying the same common law principles of head of state and sovereign immunities that exist in U.S. law and concluded that it had the authority to move forward with the case.

Also, any Presidential divorce would take place in state court, not in federal court. Federal courts do not have subject-matter jurisdiction over divorce and custody cases (under the "domestic relations exception" to federal jurisdiction), so the civil action could not be removed to federal court, unlike federal criminal cases involving the official duties of the President and unlike civil cases over which the federal courts have jurisdiction.

b) would all the proceedings be fully held in private,

This would be in the reasonable discretion of the judge. It would not be a matter of right, but it is quite plausible that a judge might close the proceedings, especially if minor children were involved.

c) could the President themselves be compelled to take the stand and


A party to a lawsuit may always be compelled to take the stand, at least if no other person can provide a full substitute for the party's testimony.

In ordinary civil lawsuits against the President, a President is usually compelled to testify only if an underling involved in the same matter cannot provide equivalent testimony. In many civil cases naming the President in his official capacity, the President has no personal knowledge of the facts and so can't be compelled to testify. But that would rarely be true in a divorce case, and would never be true in a divorce case where custody was an issue.

This said, a state divorce court judge would almost certainly be very deferential to the scheduling concerns of the President for that testimony, and might allow that testimony to be provided remotely via videoconference so as to minimize the interruption this would pose to affairs of state and to address the security concerns of the Secret Service (i.e. the President's official bodyguards).

d) what would happen if the President refused to do so?

The judge could hold the President in contempt of court, which is punishable by fines and/or incarceration.

But a more likely outcome, tailored to minimize interference with government business, is that the Court would sanction a President who defied an order to testify by assuming as a matter of law that any testimony from the President would have been unfavorable to the President and make a conclusive adverse inference on the evidentiary issues about which the President was asked to testify against the President.

  • 3
    Underling, not underlying, presumably.
    – hobbs
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 3:58
  • 3
    Just for sake of hypothetical, would anything change if the marriage and vast majority of marital assets were in Washington, DC, or another federal territory? Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 4:04
  • 2
    @IllusiveBrian - I have roughly the same point. You'd think it possible to end up in D.C. court. There's no state associated with D.C., and I understand Congress can actually legislate for it in a similar manner to what states do for cities under their jurisdiction. Which seems like it means theoretically POTUS' political allies or enemies (whichever has a majority in Congress) may have the power to mess with the proceedings.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 13:31
  • 2
    @NeilMeyer The fact that you can plead the 5th in a civil case, when pleading the 5th is appropriate, is not inconsistent with testimony being compulsory. In the same way, you can refuse to testify about what you told your attorney by asserting an attorney-client privilege, but that doesn't mean that you can refuse to testify at all because you've talked to an attorney about something. You still have to testify if the privilege doesn't apply and you still have to show up to assert the privilege even if you plan on taking the 5th or asserting some other privilege.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 13:42
  • 1
    @nick012000 if the divorce were proceeding in state court as it normally would then the president would be unable to pardon himself because the presidential power of pardon does not extend to offenses under state law. If it were D.C. court as it might conceivably be then we might at last have a court ruling on the question of whether self pardons are indeed possible, a question that seems to be a matter of some controversy.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 3, 2023 at 15:21

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