Monday, December 12, 2011, 9:03 PM

COA: Divorce under Islamic law is not a valid divorce in North Carolina

Last week, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals (Calabria and Martin, majority; Bryant, dissenting) held in Mussa v. Palmer-Mussa that a woman's divorce pursuant to Islamic law was not a valid divorce under North Carolina law.

In 1997, Nikki Palmer-Mussa participated in a wedding ceremony with Khalil Braswell. The couple consented to become husband and wife, but they did not obtain a marriage license because they only sought to comply with Islamic marriage requirements. A friend of the couple, who was not an imam, conducted the ceremony. Afterward, the couple lived together in Maryland, but the marriage was never consummated. Palmer-Mussa divorced Braswell in the manner required by Islamic law by returning the dowry and declaring that she was divorced from her husband. At the time, she believed she was divorced since the marriage was entered into under Islamic law and ended under Islamic law. However, she never sought a judicial divorce or annulment.

Palmer-Mussa subsequently returned to North Carolina, where she met and married Juma Mussa in November 1997. During their marriage, the parties had three children, purchased property as husband and wife, and filed joint tax returns, and Palmer-Mussa was listed as Mussa's wife on his insurance policy. In 2008, Palmer-Mussa filed for divorce and was awarded child support, postseparation support, and attorney’s fees. Mussa later sought an annulment based on bigamy. He argued that his marriage was void from the start because Palmer-Mussa was still married to Braswell when she married Mussa.

The Court of Appeals held that because Palmer-Mussa and Braswell did not have a marriage license and the ceremony failed to meet statutory requirements, their marriage was merely voidable--not void. A voidable marriage is valid until a tribunal annuls the marriage in a direct proceeding, in contrast to a void marriage, which is a nullity and impeachable at any time. In North Carolina, the only type of marriage that is absolutley void is a bigamous marriage.

Although Palmer-Mussa claimed she and Braswell were divorced according to the laws of Islam, the Court held that under North Carolina law, 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 Palmer-Mussa's marriage to Mussa, she was still married to Braswell, rendering the marriage between Palmer-Mussa and Mussa bigamous and void.

Related links: Record on appeal; Mussa's brief; Palmer-Mussa's brief.

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