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Congolese proxy wedding valid in Maryland

Maryland will recognize a Congolese proxy wedding, validly performed over the phone while the groom was in another country, the state’s highest court has affirmed.

The Court of Appeals’ decision is a loss for Noel Tshiani, who claimed his wife could not obtain a divorce in Maryland because they were never married.  He argued, first, that the proxy ceremony never occurred; that if it did occur, there was no proof it was valid under Congolese law; and that even if the ceremony occurred and was valid, Maryland should not recognize it because proxy weddings are repugnant to Maryland policy.

The Court of Appeals rejected all three challenges and affirmed the judgment of absolute divorce granted to Marie-Louise Tshiani.

Its decision hewed close to the reasoning the Court of Special Appeals’ employed last year, adopting the trial judge’s conclusions that a valid ceremony was performed by telephone in Kinshasha in December 1993 while Noel, a World Bank employee, was on assignment elsewhere.

Noel’s cousin stood in for him at the ceremony, while Noel gave his assent by phone to be wed and to the dowry of cash, food, clothes and a live goat, according to documents in the Maryland court proceedings.

The couple lived as husband and wife for 15 years, moving first to Virginia and then to Maryland. They bought property together and raised their three children together. However, as the relationship deteriorated, Marie-Louise moved out with the children, began seeking protective orders and filed for divorce in 2009 in Montgomery County, the Court of Appeals’ opinion said.

The trial judge and Court of Special Appeals both found the marriage was entitled to comity, or recognition under Maryland law. The top court agreed.

However, the Court of Appeals did back away from one comment in the Court of Special Appeals’ November 2012 decision, which held out the possibility that a proxy marriage performed in Maryland — by Skype, for example — might be valid.

“Whether the marriage would be valid if performed here, however, is not the question…,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell wrote Dec. 19 for the unanimous Court of Appeals. “It is simply unnecessary to reach it. Thus, the validity of attempted telephone marriages formed in Maryland must await another day in court.”

The case is Noel Tshiani v. Marie-Louise Tshiani, Court of Appeals No. 24, Sept. Term 2013.