Improperly Performed Religious Marriage + Religious Divorce + Re-Marriage = Bigamy

That’s the result of Mussa v. Palmer-Mussa (N.C. Ct. App. Dec. 6, 2011) (2-1 vote):

On 27 November 1997, plaintiff and Nikki Palmer–Mussa (“defendant”) were married in Raleigh, North Carolina. The parties separated on 3 February 2009. The parties had three children together.

Earlier in 1997, defendant participated in a wedding ceremony with Khalil Braswell (“Mr.Braswell”). At the ceremony, defendant and Mr. Braswell consented to become husband and wife. Neither defendant nor Mr. Braswell obtained a marriage license, as they only sought to comply with Islamic marriage requirements. After the ceremony, the couple lived together in Maryland, but the marriage was never consummated.

Defendant divorced Mr. Braswell in the manner required by Islamic law by returning the dowry and declaring that she was divorced from her husband. At the time this took place, defendant believed she was divorced since the marriage was entered into under Islamic law and ended under Islamic law. However, defendant never sought a judicial divorce or annulment and Mr. Braswell was still alive.

After returning to North Carolina, defendant met plaintiff. Shortly after meeting, the parties decided to marry and remained married for twelve years. During the marriage, the parties purchased property as husband and wife, filed joint tax returns and defendant was listed as plaintiff’s wife on his insurance policy.

On 4 December 2008, defendant filed a complaint for divorce from bed and board, in another action. As a result of those proceedings, the court granted defendant child support, post-separation support and attorney’s fees. On 3 December 2009, plaintiff filed a complaint for annulment based on bigamy. Plaintiff alleged his marriage to defendant was void ab initio, pursuant to N.C. Gen.Stat. § 51–3, as defendant had been married to Mr. Braswell earlier in 1997, had never obtained an annulment or divorce from Mr. Braswell and Mr. Braswell was still living….

While the evidence presented at trial supported the trial court’s finding that Kareem [who officiated at the Palmer/Braswell marriage] was not authorized to conduct the marriage within the statutory requirements [which were that the officiant be “ordained minister of any religious denomination, minister authorized by his church, or … a magistrate”], the court’s finding does not support its’ conclusion of law that defendant and Mr. Braswell were not married. The well-established law in North Carolina confirms that only bigamous marriages are void and all other marriages are voidable. [Citations omitted. -EV] Furthermore, the Court has uniformly held “that a marriage, without a license as required by statute, is valid.” Therefore, even though defendant and Mr. Braswell did not have a marriage license and the ceremony failed to meet statutory requirements, the marriage is merely voidable….

[A] voidable marriage is valid until a tribunal annuls the marriage in a direct proceeding…. In the instant case, defendant admitted that neither a divorce nor an annulment was granted by a court in North Carolina, or any other state, and that Mr. Braswell was still living. While defendant claimed she and Mr. Braswell were divorced according to the laws of Islam, there is no authority supporting the dissolution of a marriage by religious means that can be deemed to be “the equivalent of a judicial determination” regarding the validity of a marriage. Therefore, at the time of defendant’s marriage to plaintiff, she was still married to Mr. Braswell and thus any marriage between plaintiff and defendant was bigamous, and consequently void….