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Maryland court recognizes marriage by proxy

We recently discussed to what extent Maryland's courts might consider foreign laws when deciding divorce cases. Interestingly, last week an appeals court in Maryland decided such a case.

The case involved a divorce that was granted by the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, awarding the former wife spousal and child support, and a property settlement. The husband, however, appealed the dissolution of marriage, arguing there could be no divorce because the couple had wed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and their marriage was not valid under Maryland law.

The couple wed in Africa in 1993. The groom was not physically present at the ceremony and, according to circuit court findings, his cousin represented him and he participated by phone; the man testified that he did not participate in the ceremony and was not even aware of it, but the circuit court disagreed.

The day after the wedding, the couple settled in the U.S. and for the next 18 years they lived together as husband and wife. They held a vow renewal ceremony, raised children and filed joint tax returns, for example.

In granting the divorce, the circuit court found that the man's actions after the wedding ceremony showed that he recognized a lawful marriage.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed the circuit court's judgment of absolute divorce and further explained why the marriage was valid under Maryland law. In Maryland, under the doctrine of comity, even if a marriage would not have been valid if performed in Maryland, it may be recognized if it was valid where performed, as long as it is not prohibited by the General Assembly or repugnant to Maryland public policy.

In this case the man made the argument that Maryland does not recognize proxy marriages, those in which someone stands in for an absent bride or groom. The court, however, stated that this was not a proxy marriage because the circuit court found the groom was present by phone. Regardless, the court found that the marriage was valid under the laws of the Congo and could thus be recognized by Maryland because neither proxy marriage nor phone marriage are repugnant to public policy.

In conclusion, the court explained that Maryland courts honor foreign proxy or phone marriages because such marriages are not explicitly banned by law and they do not harm the liberties of either spouse. Furthermore, the court added, it is possible that these types of marriages could one day become legal to perform in Maryland.

Source: Noel Tshiani vs. Marie-Louise Tshiani, No. 2655, September Term 2010

  • Our Maryland law firm is well-versed in complex and evolving family law issues such as the case discussed above. More information about our legal services is available on our Maryland Family Law website.

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