Wedding absence doesn't get Maryland man off hook for alimony, court says

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Local,Maryland,Brian Hughes

Missing your wedding isn't a valid excuse for getting out of alimony payments, Maryland's highest court ruled in an unusual divorce case.

For more than 18 years, Montgomery County resident Noel Tshiani publicly claimed Marie-Louise Tshiani as his wife, but when she recently sought a divorce -- and alimony, property and child support -- he suddenly claimed the marriage wasn't real.

The couple were married in 1993 in the Congo, but Noel, a World Bank employee, was not physically present at the ceremony because he was on assignment in another African nation, according to court records. Instead, Noel's cousin represented him while he listened by phone.

A dowry of $200 cash, clothes and a live goat was exchanged before Marie-Louise went to live with Noel in Arlington, records said.

Fast-forward nearly two decades later, when the marriage hit the skids, and Noel claimed he was "unaware of it" altogether. However, the couple had participated in a "renewal of vows" ceremony in Arlington in 1994, Noel listed his "wife" as the beneficiary on his life insurance policy, and he obtained permanent residency status for Marie-Louise, telling immigration services that he had married her, according to court testimony.

The Maryland Court of Appeals said the marriage, though atypical, was recognized by state law.

"The parties' marriage in the Congo, where someone stood in for Noel and Noel participated by phone, was valid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Maryland courts would find it valid in this state," the court said, ordering Noel to provide compensation to Marie-Louise.

The Montgomery County Circuit Court was not so measured when it took up the case.

"[Noel] is a liar and a manipulator," its judgment read. "Either he lied to the [court] in his testimony regarding the existence of the marriage and his participation therein or he lied to the World Bank, the Internal Revenue Service and the immigration authorities. In either event, his testimony is not to be believed."

Attempts to reach both Noel and Marie-Louise for comment were unsuccessful.

In taking up the case, Maryland's highest court argued the decision would have ramifications beyond this isolated, disputed marriage.

"The mounting recognition and research on distant marriages suggest that sometimes it may be a couple's only option," the judges said. "Modern employment commitments often uproot one party from home for long periods of time. This may make personal participation in a marriage ceremony impracticable."

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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