The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently reversed a district court decision that had recognized a “cultural marriage ceremony” performed in Thailand because there was no evidence that the marriage was legally valid in Thailand. Chang v. Yang #14-1158 (Minn. Ct. App. Apr. 27, 2015). The Court of Appeals held that, to have a valid foreign marriage recognized in Minnesota, the marriage must have been valid in the place where it was performed, here Thailand.
The Minnesota Family Law Case
In this case, the two individuals had participated in a traditional Hmong wedding ceremony almost forty years ago while they were living in a refugee camp in Thailand. They held themselves out as husband and wife until the wife filed for divorce, and the husband objected, claiming they were never married.
They both took oath before an American official stating that they were married, and then they immigrated to the United States in 1978. They filed tax returns as “married filing jointly” for twenty-five years. They had six children, all of whom were adults by the time their mother filed for divorce.
The appellant argued that they were not legally married because, although they participated in a Hmong cultural marriage ceremony, that ceremony did not meet the requirements of Thailand for a legal marriage. He also said that the appellee was already married to another man at the time of the Hmong cultural ceremony.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with the appellant that a cultural marriage does not create a legal, valid marriage and that the district court was required to determine whether the Hmong cultural marriage would create a legal marriage in Thailand. The Minnesota Supreme Court stated the following rule: “The validity of a marriage is normally determined by the law of the place where the marriage is contracted. If valid by that law the marriage is valid everywhere unless it violates a strong public policy of the domicile of the parties.” In re Kinkead’s case, 239 Minn. 27, 30, 57, N.W.2d 628 631 (1953).
The Minnesota Court of Appeals found that the appellant had presented evidence that the cultural marriage was not a valid marriage, namely, material from the U.S. Embassy in Thailand that marriage requires in-person registration of the marriage in the local Civil Registry Office and that Thailand does not recognize common-law marriage. The court noted that the parties did not have a marriage certificate, and there was no evidence that either party attempted to register the marriage with the Civil Registry Office. The court found that they had taken an oath before an American official as part of immigration proceedings and that it did not appear that such an oath would support a valid Thai marriage.
The court, thus, remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the cultural marriage was valid under Thai law.
The court also required that the district court issue findings of fact and conclusions of law whether the respondent was entitled to “putative spouse status,” as per Xiong v. Xiong, 800 N.W.2d 187, 191 (Minn. Ct. App. 2011).