International Marriage Laws

How do international marriages work? Is there some sort of treaty between, say the US and Canada?

An Example:

Bob and Jane get married in Ontario, but live in Florida? Why should Florida (not to mention the SSA) accept a marriage licence issued in a different country?

Short digression first, to set up a parallel: Say I run a store somewhere in the U.S.A. The only thing I’m obligated to accept is U.S. currency in amounts for which I can easily make change. But a payroll check on an established local business, a personal check from a customer I’ve known for years, someone’s Visa or MasterCard, etc. – they’re all valid methods of payment that I would be well advised to accept, but can for one reason or another refuse. (Say, for example, that I choose not to pay the merchant’s fees for credit card purchases, out of principle, and let my clientele know that that’s my policy – but there’s an ATM two doors down if they need cash to pay me with.)

Okay, the principle about marriages (which applies between U.S. states as well as internationally) is called comity, and it’s pretty much the same sort of thing. Nobody is obliged (unless by formal treaty or by a Federal court decision under FF&C) to recognize a marriage deemed legal by some other jurisdiction – but the custom is, “You accept our legal actions, including licensing marriages, and we’ll accept yours.” This is something of the point behind the “portability” argument regarding same-sex marriages – Canadian and Massachusetts same-sex marriages and Vermont civil unions are not recognized in the other states.

But in general, if you can show that you were duly married in Marseilles, Montpelier or Sacramento will have no problem with that, nor will London or Moscow.

But they’re not obliged to – except perhaps by a clause in a bilateral treaty.

I would assume that there is something in US domestic law that recognises foreign marriages. My wife and I were married in Australia, but on at least three occassions our marriage has been recognised by US federal law:
(1) When she got a visa based on my temporary employment visa;
(2) When she got a green card bsed on my winning the green card lottery;
(3) When we allowed to file jointly on our federal income tax return.

However, I don’t know the cite for the law(s) recognising foreign marriages. And what if I’d come from a Muslim country, and had 2 or 3 wives? And what if I’d come from Canada, and had a husband instead of a wife?

Marriage is a social reality more than a legal creation. The state recognises marriages which take place; it never suddenly decided “hey, let’s create this legal institution called ‘marriage’ which (nice, normal) heterosexual couples can enter into instead of just shacking up like they do now”. All the state does is to accept the fact that marriage exists as a social reality, and provide for legal consequences to flow from marriage.

This means they have to have some rules for courts and public officials to know when a couple is married. The main rule is a registration procedure; if you get married, you have to register with the state, so that the state knows you’re married.

In most jurisdictions that I’m familiar with, if you fail to register, you’re still married as a matter of social reality and as a matter of law. You’ve committed the offence of failing to register a marriage, but you’re married. If you go ahead and marry someone else, you’ll be charged with bigamy.

Apart from registration, the state has some other rules. They won’t recognise a marriage between two twelve-year olds, for instance, or between brother or sister. By and large, these rules follow community standards. Society doesn’t accept such relationships as marriages. Most or all churches will refuse to celebrate such marriages. And the state follows suit. There can be small mismatches between social reality and the state’s rules of recognition, or blurry boundaries, but no big mismatches.

So why would it even occur to the state to refuse to recognise a marriage on the grounds that the ceremony took place somewhere else? Society as a whole would never adopt this attitude. A married couple from, say, Germany who migrate to the United States have never, ever been expected to recelebrate the marriage in the US. The idea is preposterous, and probably offensive.

There is absolutely no reason why the state should adopt a policy of refusing to recognise socially-accepted marriages on the grounds that they were celebrated somewhere else. Polycarp’s point about comity is well made, but the reason that State A recognises marriages celebrated in State B is not because State B reciprocates; it is because recognising marriages celebrated in State B accords with the reality on the ground; the couple concerned really are married, and it would be an extraordinarily bad idea to pretend that they are not.

But State A will generally only recognise a foreign ceremony of marriage if it accords with State A’s concept of marriage. So a monogamous state will not recognise a polygamous marriage, and a state whose concept of marriage is exclusively heterosexual will generally not recognise a gay marriage celebrated abroad (any more than it recognsies a gay marriage celebrated within the state).