How Do Texas Courts Handle Undocumented Marriages Performed in Foreign Countries?

By March 14, 2018Divorce

In a contested divorce case, one of the first things you will need to establish before a Galveston judge is that there is, in fact, a legal marriage to dissolve. Texas does recognize common law marriages under certain circumstances, that is marriages where the parties did not go through a licensing procedure or formal ceremony. Obviously, Texas also recognizes marriages performed in other states, or even foreign countries where marriage customs may be sharply different than those in the United States.

Galveston Appeals Court Upholds Wife’s Divorce From Nigerian Husband

Nevertheless, just because a marriage was performed according to foreign custom or law, that does not mean a Texas divorce court cannot assert jurisdiction over the parties, assuming they otherwise satisfy the state’s residency requirements. For instance, if you have lived in Galveston County for at least 90 days and been a resident of Texas for at least six months, you can file for divorce here, even if the other spouse does not live in the state. However, the non-resident spouse may still challenge the court’s “personal jurisdiction” in the case.

Recently the Texas 14th District Court of Appeals, which exercises jurisdiction over divorce cases from Galveston and several surrounding counties, addressed a complicated divorce involving two Nigerian nationals living in the United States. The wife, who lives in Harris County, sued the husband for divorce in 2013. She alleged the couple had been legally married since 1984, when a traditional Nigerian marriage ceremony was performed without either of them present.

According to the testimony of the wife and an expert she hired, such proxy marriages–which are referred to in Nigeria as “engagements”–are commonplace. Basically, the prospective husband asks his family to write the prospective wife’s family for permission to marry. According to the wife, she and her husband had actually lived together for some time and conceived a child before going through the formal engagement ceremony. Ultimately, the couple had three children.

The wife’s expert, an immigration attorney, further testified that these kinds of engagement ceremonies have long been “recognized as valid in the United States.” He cited federal immigration regulations, which expressly acknowledge “customary law by proxy” marriages where the parties are “not physically present for the wedding ceremony.” Such marriages are apparently sufficient to establish marriage for a variety of legal purposes even though there is no legal documentation of their existence.

And that was apparently good enough for the divorce courts in this state to conclude there was a valid marriage–or at the very least, what Texas would consider a common law marriage. The 14th District, rejecting the husband’s appeal from a final divorce decree issued by the trial court, held the expert’s testimony, combined with that of the wife and other evidence, was enough to establish the couple was legally married in Nigeria. Furthermore, given the husband actively participated in the divorce trial, he had effectively waived any right to challenge the court’s personal jurisdiction over him.

Speak With a Galveston Divorce Attorney Today

Never assume that just because your intimate relationship lacks documentation of a formal marriage that one does not legally exist. As the case above illustrates, this is a special concern for people who immigrate to Texas from countries where customary and traditional legal marriages are still enforced. If you have any questions regarding the legal status of your relationship and need advice from an experienced Galveston divorce lawyer, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today at (281) 843-9776.