Terminate prior marriage to remarry, not just separate

IMMIGRATION CORNER - Michael J. Gurfinkel - The Philippine Star

Dear Atty. Gurfinkel:

I entered the US on a tourist visa and then overstayed and am out of status. My US citizen boyfriend recently proposed to me, and we plan on getting married and having him petition me.

However, years ago, I married someone else in the Philippines, but he abandoned me and already has another family. We have not seen or spoken with each other in years. Since we married in the Philippines and have been separated for so long, would there be any problem in now marrying my boyfriend and having him petition me? I thought a spouse is considered “dead” if we haven’t spoken in several years.

Very truly yours,


Dear MA:

If a person has ever been married and that marriage was valid in the place/country of celebration, that marriage remains valid for US immigration purposes. The person cannot lawfully marry anyone else without first terminating all prior marriages. Otherwise, the marriage would be considered bigamous and void ab initio (from the beginning), and there would be no “petitionable relationship” with the US citizen spouse. Any green card obtained through such a marital petition would be fraudulent, making the person subject to having their green card revoked and being put in deportation/removal proceedings.

It does not matter how many years you have been separated or whether your original spouse has a new family. Unless that marriage is legally terminated, you cannot remarry anyone else.

There are several ways a marriage can be terminated:

• Divorce in the US. If a person is already in the US, they could divorce the first spouse in the US, even though their marriage took place in the Philippines. An annulment in the Philippines would not necessarily be required. This is because if a divorce is valid in the place (jurisdiction) where it was obtained, then it would be valid and recognized for US immigration purposes.

• Annulment in the Philippines. If a person is in the Philippines, then annulment might be their only option. If they are in the US, annulment in the Philippines could present issues, because if they are out of status and need to travel back to the Philippines for court hearings, they could be subject to the 3/10-year bar.  Also, in some cases, it could take years for a Philippine annulment.

• Death of prior spouse. If the prior spouse has already died, then a person could remarry as a widow or widower. However, if the previous spouse was still alive at the time of the second marriage and died later, that could present issues because, technically, on the date of the second marriage, the person was still married to their first spouse and the marriage would have been bigamous as of the date of marriage. Also, a “presumption of death” annulment could raise issues about its legality, especially if the dearly departed spouse is still alive.

I once had a consultation with a Filipina who had married a US citizen, and the couple came to me on a Friday in connection with a marital interview that was to take place the following Tuesday. She advised that she was still married to her first husband in the Philippines. We stopped that interview; she obtained a divorce in the US, remarried the American and was later able to get a “clean” legal green card.

If you plan to be petitioned by a US citizen spouse but have a previous marriage, I would recommend you consult with an attorney who can evaluate the situation and determine the best course of action and could make sure that you are lawfully/legally married to your new spouse and that your green card was obtained lawfully rather than fraudulently.

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