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.