Marriage over phone is valid, Md. court rules

November 27, 2012

Noel Tshiani wasn’t at his wedding — he listened by phone in another country to the ceremony in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to court records — but he’s just as married as if he’d stood at his bride’s side. And soon, he’ll be just as divorced and responsible for alimony and child support, a Maryland court has ruled.

Tshiani, a World Bank employee, was working in another African country when he and Marie-Louise Tshiani married in a 1993 ceremony. He answered questions and listened to the ceremony by telephone, while his cousin stood in his place for the ceremony, court records say. The exchange among families included money, clothes and a goat, and within days, the bride flew to join her husband, according to court records.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, in upholding the divorce and nearly $6,000 a month in alimony, child support and other financial payments, said the ceremony may have been unusual but is considered a marriage like any other under state law.

The ruling noted that state law on marriage doesn’t bar Maryland “from recognizing a ceremony where one party participates by proxy — or in the manner that occurred here — and the ceremony is valid in another jurisdiction.”

The decision, which can be cited as precedent, follows a line of similar decisions upholding marriages performed elsewhere, even those that were illegal in Maryland.

“The opinion by the court makes it clear that the public policy of Maryland is very much to be in support of marriage, regardless of how it’s done,” said Judith Wolfer, an attorney with the House of Ruth who represented Marie-Louise Tshiani.

Noel Tshiani’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

In May, as opponents were gathering signatures to put a newly adopted law to allow same-sex marriage in Maryland on the November ballot, the state’s top court recognized a same-sex marriage performed in California when the couple sought to divorce in Maryland, Wolfer said.

After the Tshianis’ marriage went sour about 15 years later and she filed for divorce — she contended he was abusive — he eventually told a Montgomery County judge that he didn’t know about the marriage. That was despite renewing their vows in church, obtaining a green card for his wife and having filed joint tax returns, according to last week’s ruling from the Court of Special Appeals.

“Remember, the basis of marriage is a contract. If you buy something from Amazon online, that’s a contract,” Wolfer said.

The court noted that two professors in Michigan suggested that all states should allow marriage by videoconferencing, given that other contracts are done electronically when participants are in different locations. However, the court noted that it took no position on whether Maryland would recognize a Skype marriage.

“The mounting recognition and research on distant marriages suggest that sometimes it may be a couple’s only option,” the court noted, citing marriages by proxy among members of the military and work situations that pull the bride or groom to a different location.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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