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Foreign marriages and other multinational estate planning issues

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With the rise of globalization, multinational families are becoming more and more common. When family members reside or own property in more than one country, unexpected issues could arise in your estate planning or probate. For example, just last month, there was a Guam Supreme Court decision interpreting the effect of a Guam divorce on a Philippines marriage in a probate proceeding. The issue: whether the foreign marriage was valid.

Joaquin, Nancy, and Elizabeth- an international marriage story

Joaquin petitioned for dissolution from his wife Nancy in Guam in 2005. In February 2008, the Superior Court of Guam granted an interlocutory decree stating that “[T]he marriage of Plaintiff and Defendant is dissolved nunc pro tunc as of January 16, 2008, pending the entry of the final judgment.” The decree was not a final judgment of divorce.

Elizabeth and Joaquin were married in the Philippines in 2008. Elizabeth was a national of the Republic of Philippines, while Joaquin had lived in Guam. They obtained a Certificate of Marriage from the Republic of the Philippines and the marriage was solemnized by a ceremony there. After being married, Joaquin obtained permanent resident status in the Philippines.

The Court issued a final judgment of divorce on January 5, 2010. Joaquin passed away in the Philippines in 2011.

After Joaquin passed, there was a questions of who would administer the estate. Elizabeth nominated someone from the Philippines because that is where she was. As his spouse, she would have priority to nominate an administrator over his sons, who wanted to appoint someone else.

Is the foreign marriage valid?

The short answer is yes. But, the courts didn’t get there right away. After a motion for summary judgment from one of Joaquin’s sons the court determined that Guam law did not recognize Elizabeth as Joaquin’s legal spouse because Joaquin’s divorce was not finalized before he married Elizabeth. This means that she did not have priority to nominate an administrator for Joaquin’s estate.

Elizabeth appealed and the Supreme Court of Guam reversed the ruling and remanded the case. The Supreme Court cited Guam’s foreign marriage statute that says a court should apply the law of the place the marriage was contracted. The marriage was contracted in the Philippines, so the law of the Philippines applies. The Philippines does not allow divorce, but they do recognize foreign divorces if the foreign law allows it. Further, in the Philippines, for a remarriage to be valid with a party having only obtained an interlocutory decree (like Joaquin had), the decree must have the same effect as a legal divorce.

The Supreme Court of Guam found that in Guam, the interlocutory degree did have the same effect as an absolute divorce. Therefore, the marriage was valid under Philippines law and valid under Guam’s law as well.

How does Arizona treat foreign marriages?

If you’re wondering how foreign marriages are treated under Arizona law, you’re in luck. Generally, in Arizona foreign marriages and divorces are considered valid unless there’s something clearly disqualifying. Under A.R.S. § 25-112, “Marriages valid by the laws of the place where contracted are valid in this state.” There are a few exceptions  though, like incestuous marriages.

But, if you are part of a multinational family and estate planning in Arizona, the validity of your marriage may not be the only issue you should be thinking about.

For example, multinational estate plans might have different estate and gift tax considerations. There might be considerations based on the jurisdiction that the decedents and assets are situated in. Foreign assets can create complexities in estate planning such as inheritance taxes and succession laws. Different rules may apply based on the decedent and their heirs nationality, residency, and domicile. International situs rules (which determine which jurisdiction’s rules apply) may also apply.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.