Proxy Marriage – Convenient or Fraudulent

On behalf of The Marks Law Firm, L.L.C. posted in Marriage on Friday, March 22, 2013

A recent New York Times article described a recent trend among certain immigrant cultures – proxy marriage, where a wedding ceremony takes place with the bride in one country and the groom in another country, with the union taking place courtesy of cyberspace. Can a marriage ceremony where one attends virtually through Skype possibly be legal? Possibly, perhaps even probably.

In many countries, arranged marriages are still the rule rather than the exception, assuring that religious and cultural traditions continue even as children experience modernity and receive an education abroad. A potential Indian groom studying medicine in the United States has little time to find an appropriate mate (as the parents would understand the term), so his parents arrange one in India. These marriages happen frequently – the new twist is that the Indian groom will not return to India for the wedding.

While these marriages appear strange, the virtual presence is almost like being there in person, and the whole proceeding could be recorded. In the United States, one would have a hard time finding a marriage license for such a ceremony, as nearly all states require both parties appear in person before the magistrate or religious leader conducting the ceremony. But in other countries, like India, that presence is not required and they consider such proxy marriages valid.

If a marriage is valid in India or Pakistan, even if it was by proxy, must the United States recognize that marriage? If so, will that allow the foreign spouse to gain a green card and a pathway to citizenship in the United States? These questions create thorny issues for those concerned about circumventing immigration laws through questionable marriages, so the answers to each question are very important.

Generally, states in this country recognize a foreign union so long as it complied with the laws of that country. However, if the union would violate the public policy of one of our states, that state would not be required to recognize the marriage. For instance, states will not recognize bigamous marriages or the marriage of an adult and a twelve year old. Usually, marriages do not present the due process issues we would see in “quickie divorces” in foreign countries, so the issue of proxy marriage is really new territory and may invite closer scrutiny of marriage process in foreign ceremonies.

Currently, most states would probably recognize these foreign proxy marriages, which would mean immigration laws would allow the foreign spouse to join the spouse legally on a path to citizenship in the United States.

Why should we be so concerned? After all, had the two parties appeared together in the foreign country, we would have no problem at all. That is also how “mail order” marriages occur. The need for a plane trip should not alone constitute fraud, anymore than joint appearance eliminates fraud – green card marriages take place in this country in person, but may still be fraudulent by intent.

If form cannot determine a fraudulent marriage (one entered simply to get a green card), why should we stop proxy marriages? The short answer is, perhaps we should not stop them at all, and that the only reason we question them now is because it looks funny, peculiar, irregular. But we could say that about many religious rites. In this case, we seem to have a slippery slope argument – if we accept proxy marriage, what will be next? If, as the article in the Times suggests, immigration officials do not screen these marriages any more carefully than a potential green card marriage in the United States, should not the fault be with the standards and practices of the immigration departments rather than the facility of the Internet?

One could list many compelling reasons why we should discourage these types of marriages, just as we should mail order brides. But the law allows people to make potentially foolish choices in marriage; the Internet just may make it easier. We cannot adequately screen intent for a marriage; we can simply require the couple wait longer before receiving citizenship status. But that too seems arbitrary – a fraudulent couple may be willing to wait out the government more than a genuine intent couple under similar circumstances.

We will not resolve this issue today, but it is clearly going to become a serious issue moving forward – not just for immigration purposes, but for divorce: if a couple has a proxy marriage, we may see states failing to recognize the validity of these marriages which means a couple could not get divorced though residing in those states, which leaves those couples essentially unmarried and therefore without the protections of property division and spousal support.

If you have further questions about proxy marriage or the legal validity of your marriage, contact us – we can help.

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