Consider the following sequence of events:

  1. A couple get married in a St. Louis, Missouri courtroom in 2002 (at which time they are residents in the USA).

  2. The couple begin living in a foreign country in the following year. They register their marriage in the foreign country through the appropriate legal mechanisms

  3. Within three years, they are no longer US residents.

  4. The couple separates after four years. They hire a local lawyer to annul the marriage in the foreign country, and this is done.

  5. The marriage is still valid in the USA, according to a US Embassy.

  6. A significant time later, the couple wants to dissolve the marriage in the USA too. However, neither the US Embassy nor any lawyers they consult with, either overseas or in the USA, can give them a straight answer as to how to effect such a divorce. The couple is told that there are "complicated jurisdictional issues" involved. For example, Missouri law seems to require that at least one of the spouses wanting to file for divorce must be resident in Missouri.

How is this ex-couple supposed to file their (uncontested) divorce in the USA?

EDIT: Let me clarify what I mean by "annulment". The marriage was registered in a notary in the foreign country so that it would have legal validity there. The "annulment" I refer to was then the standard process for "reversing" this registration, so that the marriage no longer held legal validity in the foreign country. The lawyer hired to do this actually referred to this process as a "divorce", so "annulment" was a bad choice of words on my part.

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    Why do the parties need to file their divorce in the US? Since neither is resident in the US (presumably), the US has very little jurisdiction over them, and the question of their marital status is largely moot under US law. The one possible exception I can think of is the IRS; but I would think that the IRS would be happy to guide you through what you need to do to be considered "single" for their purposes. – Michael Seifert Jan 10 at 20:19
  • @MichaelSeifert Thanks! Finally getting some straight answers. In the event that one or both ex-spouses move back to the USA and become residents there again, would the marriage certificate regain legal validity? – ben Jan 11 at 14:28
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    I'm not an expert, but here's my understanding: so long as you have a valid divorce decree, and both parties abide by the terms of the divorce, no problem should arise. There might come a day where one party is living in the US and wants to enforce or modify the terms of the divorce decree. In this case they would need to get the court of their state of residence to recognize the "foreign divorce" as legally binding. This is where the "complicated jurisdictional issues" arise, and (if one party is suing the other) where a lawyer would need to get involved. ... – Michael Seifert Jan 11 at 14:59
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    Remarriage might also require formal recognition of the foreign divorce decree by the state in which the remarrying ex-spouse now resides. The US State Dept. recommends that the ex-spouse(s) contact the Office of the Attorney General of the state in question to help resolve such issues. – Michael Seifert Jan 11 at 15:01
  • @MichaelSeifert Thanks so much. The US State Dept link really helped me. Key section is "Will my Foreign Divorce be Recognized in the United States?" – ben Jan 11 at 21:20

The general rule is that the ability to have a valid divorce has nothing to do with where the marriage was entered into, or the citizenship of the parties. Usually, any jurisdiction with sufficient contacts with either member of the couple has jurisdiction to enter a divorce. Hence, generally, people get divorced in the place that they live.

The problem in this scenario is step 5. I think that it is highly likely that the U.S. Embassy is simply wrong, unless there is some serious irregularity in step 4. An annulment after four years of marriage, as opposed to a divorce, is highly irregular and would not be allowed in the vast majority of jurisdictions. But, maybe there are facts and circumstances that make it otherwise.

This fact pattern, while it on one hand sounds like a "for a friend" question based on real facts, also sounds like some important details that may be outcome determinative have been omitted.

  • Thanks for this response. I can't think of anything relevant to add to the fact pattern, but please see my clarification of "annulment" in the original post. – ben Jan 11 at 14:22

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