Opinions, March 8, 2016: Recognizing Foreign Wedding Ceremonies

First, happy birthday to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.! He would have been 175 today. One of my favorite quotes from the pithy Great Dissenter: “Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shoveling smoke.”

Secondly, man, it’s been over a month since the last post/family law decision from the Houston Courts of Appeal. Maybe they’re saving them up for an Easter basket cornucopia or something.

On to today’s decision: The  Fourteenth Court of Appeals released its published opinion in Adeleye v. Driscal, No. 14-14-00822-CV, in which the key issue is the recognition of a marriage under foreign law and custom.

Margaret Modupe Driscal testified that she met Tokes Tosin Adeleye in 1981 and they dated for two years before being married in a traditional Nigerian ceremony on May 18, 1984. She further testified that she was pregnant and they had been cohabitating before the ceremony. Neither Adeleye nor Driscal was present at the ceremony because the custom in Nigeria was for the man to tell his family whom he wants to marry and then his family writes to the woman’s family to ask for her hand in marriage and dates are arranged for a ceremony at which the husband and wife evidently do not appear. They had three children together and moved to Georgia in 1983 and to the Houston area in 1997. She testified they found a house in Houston together, lived together throughout the marriage (though Adeleye went back and forth between Atlanta and Houston, supposedly for business reasons), and held themselves out to friends and family as being married. The trial court entered a divorce decree dissolving the marriage and dividing the estate. Adeleye challenged the decree on appeal.

At trial, Driscal introduced expert testimony of a Nigerian lawyer licensed in Nigeria and New York whose practice includes immigration and family law matters. Her expert corroborated Driscal’s account of Nigerian marriage customs and further testified that such “customary law by proxy” marriages are recognized by the United States, as evinced by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service Policy Manual. He said that in such cases, the families of the couple meet and agree on a “bride price” to be paid by the groom and then family members or personal representatives of both sides, along with two witnesses, meet. Once the meeting has occurred, the couple is legally married in Nigeria.

At first, I thought this would save considerable sums on wedding planning, but Adeleye’s brother, Sanya Adeleye, testified that there were 50 to 80 people at the ceremony, so it sounds like you still have to feed scores of semi-known relatives. Adeleye’s own brother further testified that his family recognized Driscal and Adeleye as married, the couple held themselves out as married, they lived together, had three children together, had a house together, and that Sanya is totally getting Tokes back for that time when they were kids and Tokes put Sanya’s hand in warm water while he was asleep.

Long story short*, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding the marriage was valid and existing at the time the divorce action was filed.

*There are a number of other interesting and intriguing issues addressed in the opinion (e.g. there is a strong implication Adeleye had a second wife and life in Georgia and Driscal had an unconsummated de jure marriage to another man for green card purposes) but they are either distracting from the main issue or Adeleye failed to preserve the error in trial court or he asserts arguments on appeal that were not asserted in trial court.



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