Getting married in a foreign locale is often seen as a romantic and exotic way to mark this happy occasion. Getting divorced in a foreign country can also have its appeal as a somewhat dramatic way to end the marriage, while also providing a more definitive mark to transition from married to single life. Once the allure of travel to another country wears off, and a return to the U.S. requires consideration of the practical implications of actions taken elsewhere, the question of whether one’s state will recognize the validity of a foreign marriage or divorce may arise.
A legally-recognized marriage confers a large number of benefits and rights to each spouse that become even more important in the event of a divorce. A recent decision by an Indiana appeals court hinged on the validity of a couple’s divorce issued in Mexico during the 1960s. The legal status of the Mexican divorce was left unsettled for more than 40 years, which the court used as the basis for blocking the purported surviving spouse’s attempt to collect a share from her late husband’s estate. This case illustrates the danger of a spouse descending to benefits the other party never intended for him or her to receive when a foreign divorce is not recognized by U.S. courts. Given important consequences of marriage and divorce, one should understand when other jurisdictions will and will not recognize these acts as valid. A discussion of the benefits and rights marriage and divorce give each spouse, and how courts assess the validity of foreign-issued marriages and divorces, will follow below.
Rights and Benefits Received in Marriage
While most people get married for emotional reasons, the law gives married couples many important legal rights and benefits that convey practical and valuable authority to take certain actions. While most of these rights exist to support and encourage the institution of marriage, they also include issues that directly impact divorce. Examples of some of the benefits most married couples routinely use are:
- Filing joint income tax returns, which allows for larger standard deductions;
- Inheriting from a spouse’s estate;
- Receiving spousal Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits;
- Obtaining insurance benefits through a spouse’s employer;
- Making medical decisions when a spouse becomes incapacitated or unable to communicate his or her wishes; and
- Filing a wrongful death lawsuit against a third party for causing the death of spouse.
Validity of Foreign Marriages and Divorces
Generally, any marriage entered into between two U.S. citizens in another country is recognized as valid in the U.S. as long as the union was legal when and where performed. This means that as long as any issues that would invalidate the marriage at home (underage, incapacity, bigamy, blood relatives, etc.) are not present overseas, the marriage will be accepted in the U.S. However, most countries have a residency requirement, which means ceremonies performed by religious officials cannot be registered with the government unless this regulation is satisfied. In this situation, the couple would need to have a civil union performed in the U.S. to have a legally binding marriage.
Foreign-issued divorces are also generally given same type of full faith and credit acceptance as foreign marriages. But, in order to ensure they meet the legal requirements of U.S. divorces, courts typically require evidence that the other party received notice of the divorce action, had an opportunity to participate in the proceedings, and at least one of the parties lived in the country that issued the divorce. State courts are especially apt to reject a foreign divorce if neither party lived in the country that issued it, since it brings up the question of whether the foreign court had the authority to dissolve the marriage.
Having judgments or legal decrees issued in other countries recognized in the U.S. is not necessarily a given or easy. Marriage and divorce are central issues that directly affect a person’s life, and ensuring these proceedings will be enforced at home is crucial. Instead of just assuming, or trying to figure out how to validate legal documents on your own, use the knowledge and experience of a family law attorney to confirm if these documents are sufficient. Family law firm Christopher L. Arrington, P.C. has years of experience advising clients in family law matters, and is available to answer your questions and concerns. Contact the Danville office today to schedule an appointment.