Friday, April 1, 2011

Validity of Foreign Marriages: what if as dowry my fiancé paid only 35 cows instead agreed 50?

Part II – Washington Court of Appeals Decision on Exotic Marriage Ceremonies

In some countries civil, cultural and religious ceremonies are recognized by civil authorities. The question is whether those exotic ceremonies will be recognized by courts in the US.

The Washington Court of Appeals dealt with this issue in the recent case In Re the Marriage of William Akon and Tereza Awan. See Court Opinion.

Mr. Akon married Tereza Awan in 2004 in Egypt. At that time he was not aware that Tereza was already married to Jok Aleu in Sudan. At the dissolution of marriage procedure Mr. Akon asked the court to find that Tereza’s Sudanese marriage was invalid.

In 1994 Tereza Awan and Jok Aleu had a traditional Sudanese marriage in their village Aweil. To conclude the ceremony, Jok Aleu agreed to pay Tereza’s father 50 cows. He had only paid 35 cows when the war reached the village. Even though the payment was not complete, village Sultan have approved the marriage. Mr. Akon contends that incomplete payment of dowry renders the marriage invalid and unrecognizable even by Sudanese civil authorities.

The Washington State Court of Appeals reviewed an issue of whether Sudanese marriage should be recognized as a valid marriage under WA laws. The court cited following rules:

(1)    Marriage is a civil contract between a male and a female who are more than 18 years old and are otherwise capable;

(2)    Marriage is valid if it performed in accord with either civil or religious practice. In the latter case, appropriate paperwork needs to be filed.

(3)    In a marriage is valid in one jurisdictions, it will be recognized in Washington state but only if is neither prohibited in Washington state nor made unlawful.

(4)    When getting married, parties must intend to enter into a marital relationship.

(5)    In order to prove validity of marriage under the foreign law, a person must present evidence of existence of that foreign law.

(6)    In order to prove existence of a foreign religious marriage ceremony, a person must present evidence of such ceremony taking place. See Court Opinion.

The court of appeals seemed to employ a two-step process in determining validity of the Sudanese marriage. First, the court found that a valid cultural marriage had taken place. It stated that at the trial sufficient evidence was presented to prove that a wedding ceremony took place.

Second, the court looked at the evidence if the cultural marriage should be recognized in the United Stated. According to the court of appeals, both Tereza and Jok testified that there was a valid cultural marriage. There was evidence that they in fact intended to marry, their ceremony was recognized by local authority the Sultan, they consummated the marriage and Jok substantially paid the dowry.

On the subject of whether the cultural marriage would be recognized in Sudan as valid even if 15 cows were not paid, the court said yet. It stated that parties and other witnesses could testify on the state of law in a foreign jurisdiction. Akon testified that the incomplete payment rendered the marriage invalid in Sudan. However, as both Tereza and Jok testified that the incomplete payment did not invalidate the cultural marriage, the trial court concluded and court of appeals confirmed that this marriage was valid in Sudan and therefore should be considered valid in the USA.

Two things bother me in this opinion:

(1)    It seems that neither trial nor court of appeals checked existing Sudan legal authority on the subject, instead relying on witness testimony.  In dicta the appellate court stated “while proof of a foreign statute or other law would be preferable, we do not see that as an essential requirement, particularly given the state of affairs in the region where the 1994 marriage took place.” See Court Opinion.

(2)    The court did not ask for testimony of a qualified individual like a Sudan lawyer, instead the court relied on testimonies of people who could not even read. On the same note, we do not know why trial court accepted testimony of Tereza and Jok and did not accept testimony of Akon, also a party.

As we can see, Washington courts recognize foreign marriages even if marriage ceremonies are religious or cultural and are not performed correctly as long as there is some evidence of existence of foreign law.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ten Days in Jail for Disrupting Court Hearing

It is never a good idea to argue with a trial judge. It is also not a good idea to interrupt the judge or ignore judge’s requests and warnings.
In a recent unpublished case, WA court of appeals upheld trial judge’s decision to sanction Ms. Bynum for misbehavior in court.
Ms. Bynum and Mr. Wooley were divorced. They had a post decree matter scheduled for August 2009 hearing. Among other things, Ms. Wooley asked for an order of protection against Ms. Bynum. During the first hearing, Ms. Bynum disrupted the hearing several times. The judge warned her:
“If there’s any more outbursts, such as slapping your hands on the … on the bench in front of you, or having any kind of verbal outbursts, trying to interrupt, then … in fact, Madam Clerk, I think it might be a good idea to go ahead and call for sheriff … just because it is a very volatile situation for everyone and I want to have the ability to immediately react if anybody decides to get out of hand. And I am talking to you right now, Ms. Bynum. And I want to make sure you keep yourself completely under control.” See Court Opinion
For the remainder of that hearing, Ms. Bynum behaved herself.
The hearing resumed several weeks later, when Ms. Bynum again interrupted the proceedings by commenting on something that was told by a witness or attorney. The court asked her to refrain from comments until she is on the witness stand.  However, it did not stop Ms. Bynum, who again interrupted the proceedings and again was warned by the judge.
After a lunch break, when the hearing resumed, Ms. Bynum continued her behavior. She interrupted Mr. Wooley’s testimony by laughing out loud. The judge again asked her to stop. Unfortunately, Ms. Bynum did not. When she interrupted Mr. Wooley’s testimony for the second time, the judge held her in contempt and had her removed from the courtroom. She was ordered to serve 10 days in jail for contempt and she was not allowed to participate in further proceedings.
Because Ms. Bynum was not allowed in the courtroom, she could not testify on the issue of protection order against her.  As a result, the court imposed a lifetime protection order against Ms. Bynum as to Mr. and Ms. Wooley. Ms. Bynum appealed.
After review of the materials presented and court transcripts, the court of appeals upheld trial judge’s decision and sanctions stating that the trial judge had discretion to punish for contempt persons who are engaged in “intentional, disorderly, contemptuous, or insolent behavior toward the judge while holding the court, tending to impair the authority, or to interrupt due course of a trial or other judicial proceedings.” See Court Opinion
On the issue of Ms. Bynum’s testimony, the court of appeals also upheld trial judge’s decision. They stated that a right to testify could be waived by repeated, disruptive conduct by a defendant.
“We conclude, as the trial judge did, that Ms. Bynum knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived her right to testify by conducting herself inappropriately and by refusing to comply with warnings from the court. The judge’s refusal to return Ms. Bynum to the courtroom to explain her behavior was within Judge Baker’s discretionary authority.” See Court Opinion

Monday, March 7, 2011

If I get married abroad, will my marriage be valid in the US?

Part I – International Conventions and Other Interstate Rules
I got married in Belize. At night, we felt our bed shaking, our building moving violently. We were on the second floor, so building movements were felt quite well.  From all the shacking water in a bath tub on the roof spilled as if it was raining heavily. We even thought it was a tropic rain. And of course air conditioning died. In the morning we found out that the night disturbance was caused by an earthquake. We also found out that power lines were ruined, hence there was no electricity and no one could predict when the power would be restored. Fortunately that morning we were leaving to Costa Rica and did not have to suffer from insane heat (it was over 95F during the day). The other couple, who we met in a neighboring hotel, was not as lucky. Their wedding was scheduled for that morning.  I guess, when you plan a wedding in a foreign country, you have to be ready for anything. Hence adequate preparation is essential.
Numerous wedding websites contain itemized checklists of things for brides and grooms to consider when planning a destination wedding. Those lists usually notify the couple to check local requirements for a marriage ceremony.  They do not discuss if your marriage will be recognized in your country of origin assuming that it would. In many cases it is safe to assume validity of marriages taking into consideration public international laws.
“Public international law” is a general term used to describe legal situation or agreements between countries. As there is no world government or global authority, countries can do want they want. In some instances, all countries either explicitly or implicitly agree to abide to the same rules.
When countries explicitly declare a rule that will govern their decisions in a specific area, they sign or ratify an international agreement or convention on that subject. In our case, there is Hague Convention on Celebration and Recognition of Validity of Marriages, also called Hague Marriage Convention that was concluded on March 14, 1978, and entered into force on May 1, 1991.
The Convention directs countries signatories to recognize as valid marriages validly entered in countries signatories of the Convention. Article 9 states that “a marriage validly entered into under the law of the State of celebration or which subsequently becomes valid under that law shall be considered as such in all Contracting States, subject to provisions of this Chapter.”
To be valid in the State of celebration a marriage should abide the internal laws of that state. Under Article 2, “the formal requirements for marriage shall be governed by the law of the state of celebration.”
Further, “where a marriage certificate has been issued by a competent authority, the marriage shall be presumed to be valid until the contrary is established” (Article 1), meaning that if there is a valid marriage certificate, all other countries signatories to the Convention shall recognize that marriage. There is a closed list of exceptions to this requirement though. The most significant exception is stated in Article 14, which provides “A Contracting State may refuse to recognize the validity of a marriage where such recognition is manifestly incompatible with its public policy”. The public policy exception plays a big role in recognition of same-sex marriages.
Even though the Hague Marriage Convention is a lovely public international law document, it has its limitations. One of them is that for it to govern, it must be signed by countries. Currently only Australia, Luxemburg and the Netherlands have ratified it and Egypt, Finland and Portugal have signed the convention.
Nevertheless, world countries routinely recognize valid marriages entered in other countries. That happens because they observe the principle of comity, or legal reciprocity. Such recognition is implicit. Under the comity principle, jurisdictions will extend certain courtesies to other nations, particularly by recognizing the validity and effect of their executive, legislative and judicial acts, including marriages. Comity is effective only to the extent that foreign laws or judgments do not directly conflict with the foreign country’s public policy. Hence, countries recognize valid civil marriages.
In summary, destination weddings not only produce beautiful pictures but also result in a valid marriage, which will most likely be recognized in your country as long as your follow legal rules for marriage ceremony of the destination country.
Having said that, when considering a marriage ceremony in an exotic country, I would recommend to get an Apostille on a marriage certificate.  I will discuss Apostilles in one of my next blog entries.
Finally, in my next blog entry I will also discuss if exotic ceremonies (religious or traditional ceremonies might contain only weird requirements, like dowry, not recognized by more developed countries) could be recognized as valid marriages under the US laws.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

International Family Law

Many of my friends grew up in European countries. They moved to the US, met their future spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends here, got married/moved in together, acquired property and gave birth to children. Unfortunately, some of those marriages/relationships did not work out.
Now some of my friends want to go back to their countries of origin and they want to take kids with them. Others would like to stay in the United States, but their future ex-spouses consider moving to their countries of birth. Still others found a better job in Europe and want to move there.
Few couples acquired property in different countries, not just the United States, and they want that property to be divided in divorce or other court proceeding.
Regardless of their individual situation, all of those couples have one question: Are there any international laws we need to be aware of?
And the answer is yes. International family law is a rapidly growing area of family law practice. Nowadays family law attorneys have to deal with effects of globalization and free movement of people. Unfortunately, private international laws are complex, underdeveloped and their implementation in countries is questionable.
It is my goal to ultimately focus my legal practice not only on domestic family law but also on international family law, so that I would be able to help my clients feel well informed, secure and protected no matter where they reside.

Monday, February 21, 2011

King is dead, long live the King

When I was choosing a color scheme for my blog, I checked out many websites and blogs of family law attorneys. The prevailing colors were brownish, reddish types that you would see at a funeral. Pictures also conveyed, at least to me, a message that your life, as you know it, has ended and it's time to bury it. On one hand, it is true that divorces are destructive. After a divorce, one will not be able to continue leading same life as before. Things will change, whether you want it or not. That is true. What is not true is an idea that attorneys help or should help one to bury their old life, arrange a funeral.

Instead as I see my family law work as a way to help people to get their lives back. The old life is over, now it is time to start a new better life and my mission is to assist people to move on, start planning for a better future. The new life is bound to be better because hopefully we learn from our mistakes, we evolve, we know better now.

I also believe that people need to know their legal rights. That knowledge will help them to avoid silly arguments, which usually are not based on any laws or, in some cases, even common sense. Well informed people will also be able to make sound decisions, maybe even preserve semi-good relationships with former spouses, which is essential when children are involved.