Get Divorced if Not Legally Married

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“Do I have to get divorced if I was never legally married?”

Hi, I’m Jim Hacking, immigration lawyer practicing law throughout the United States at our office here in St. Louis, Missouri. We deal with marriages from around the world, and we deal with situations where someone was married back in the home country and they come to the United States and they want to marry a US citizen. And sometimes their marriages are not in the traditional sense that we think of here in the United States.

What do I mean by that? Well, there are things called tribal marriages or traditional marriages or marriages where a couple just says “We’re married.” and that’s sort of it, or it might be a religious ceremony, and it’s not ever recorded with a government entity. Now, a lot of people think then, “Well, since I was never legally married back in my home country, I’m free to get married here in the United States.” And they do marry a US citizen and they file an I-130 petition based on that marriage, their spouse files it for them, and then they file for Adjustment of Status.

And we’ve been seeing more and more denials where the USCIS is looking at that original tribal or religious or customary marriage, and they’re saying “That’s a legal marriage for purposes of immigration.” Now, it’s ironic because I think in a lot of ways, they would never recognize such a marriage for the purposes of giving someone a green card. But they’re very happy to recognize it in order to keep you from getting a new green card based on your new marriage, if that makes sense. So they won’t honor them, I don’t believe, for most straightforward, I-130 cases, but they will use it as a reason to deny you.

And we’ve seen this come up time and time again, especially in the last few years. And so you most likely do need to go back and get divorced. Now it might be easier for you to get a divorce here in the United States, because getting divorced overseas can be difficult, can be time consuming, can take years, and still at the end of the day, USCIS might not recognize that as a valid divorce. We’ve been seeing a lot of fake divorce decrees coming out of countries, especially in Western Africa, specifically Nigeria and Ghana. So that’s really become an issue.

So if you have one of these customary marriages, you need to probably talk to an immigration lawyer. You need to look at the visa reciprocity table for your country and see what their requirements are for marriage and what their requirements are for divorce. And this can be pretty confusing, and sometimes the problem is you get a request for evidence to prove this up and you have 30 days.

So I would say that if you have one of these customary marriages and you’re thinking about applying for a green card, you should definitely make sure that you are free to marry before you file that I-130. Otherwise you’re going to have to start all over, get divorced, get remarried, and then refile. So that can be a real problem.

If you have questions about this, give us a call at (314) 961-8200. You can email us at info@hackinglawpractice.com. Be sure to join us in our Facebook group, it’s called Immigrant Home. And if you like this video, we ask that you please share it out on social and that you subscribe to our YouTube channel so that you get updates whenever we make videos just like this one. Thanks a lot. Have a great day.