One very common misunderstanding regarding marriages in India is the legality or validity of certain ceremonies. In general, the United States will recognize, for immigration purposes and otherwise, marriages abroad provided that the marriages performed abroad conform to and are considered legal in the foreign country. In India, like many other countries, marriages may be conducted via religious or civil ceremonies. Contrary to popular belief, religious ceremonies are, as a general matter, legal and recognized as legal. In fact, the US consulate in New Dehli notes that:
In India, a religious marriage ceremony is generally considered a legal marriage. However, for marriages registered under the Hindu Marriage Act (affecting Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists), the certificate issued by the temple or gurudwara may not be legally sufficient for all purposes. Individuals married under the Hindu Marriage Act may seek a formal marriage certificate from the Registrar of Marriages. If one of the parties is not Indian, the registrar may request a "no objection letter"... and proof of termination of any prior marriages.
If the parties are married in a Christian, Muslim, Parsi, Jewish, Baha'i or other religious ceremony, the certificate issued by the religious authority (e.g., the church's marriage certificate, the mosque's nikah nama, etc.) generally is sufficient proof of marriage, and no certificate from the marriage registrar is necessary.
On the other hand, if the couple does not wish to get married religiously, they may choose to marry civilly through the Indian government under the auspices of the Special Marriage Act. As part of the procedure, the parties must usually wait at least 30 days before going through the ceremony so that notice may be published in the newspaper and any objections entertained prior to. A civil marriage is just as valid as a religious marriage.
Potential Complications for the Immigration Process
Without a basic understanding of the marriage procedures in India, a number of potential snafus can arise during the immigration process. For example, a US Citizen may file a fiancé K-1 petition for his Indian fiancé, but subsequently marry his fiancé religiously in India prior to his/her visa interview under the mistaken impression that the religious ceremony is of no legal consequence, and that the only marriage that will be recognized is the one in the US. Unfortunately, many US consular officers do not see things this way. Under this type of scenario, it is very likely that the applicant will be deemed ineligible for the K-1 visa since he/she is technically married, and hence, no longer a fiancé.
Sometimes, an individual may be less than forthcoming and avoid trying to register the marriage altogether under the flawed notion that "if it is not registered, it did not happen." This disingenuous approach also invites trouble because registration of marriages are, for the most part, compulsory pursuant to India's Supreme Court in 2006. Accordingly, marriages will need to be registered either under the Hindu Marriage Act or the Special Registration Act, depending on the religion of the couple. Failure to register may not only run afoul of India's requirements but may also be perceived as deceptive behavior with an aim to evading US immigration laws. An example may be illustrative: an individual may only immigrate only preference category F2B if he or she is an unmarried child over 21 of a Permanent Resident. It is not uncommon, unfortunately, for some visa applicants to become so impatient that they marry in the interim while awaiting the visa date to be become current, which can take many years. However, some individuals have been known to omit or intentionally hide the marriage during the visa application process, sometimes by deliberately not registering the marriage. To their shock and consternation, they are often confronted at the interview by consular officers who accuse them of already being married, armed with reliable information obtained through field investigations. In many cases, not only will the application be denied but the applicant will also be charged with misrepresentation under 212(a)(6)(c)(i), which can seriously prejudice any future application.
Given how important the consequences of marriages are, it is critical to consult with an immigration attorney prior to marriage in order to fully understand the legal ramifications. An informed understanding of the immigration process and eligibility process will often lead to a realistic estimate of timeframes and more often, happier results.
The above is not legal advice nor intended to create an attorney-client relationship.