Immigration Law--Court of Appeals of Washington Holds Spousal Maintenance Order Not Required to Enforce I-864 Obligation--In re Marriage of Khan, 332 P.3d 1016 (Wash. Ct. App. 2014).

Author:Medeiros, Mallory
 
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Section 213A of the Immigration and Nationality Act (the Act) creates the legal obligation of a sponsor of an alien applying for permanent residency status in the United States. (1) Title 8, section 1182(a)(4)(C)(ii) of the United States Code requires the sponsor to fill out an Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which is commonly referred to as USCIS Form 1-864 (I-864). (2) In In re Marriage of Khan, (3) the Court of Appeals of Washington considered, as an issue of first impression, whether federal immigration law requires the enforcement of a former spouse's 1-864 obligation via a maintenance award. (4) The court held that a maintenance award was inessential to the imposition of a sponsor's 1-864 support obligation to a former spouse. (5)

In 2010, Azad Khan, a United States citizen, sponsored his wife, Nishat Khan, on her application for permanent United States residency. (6) As Nishat's sponsor, Azad had to complete an 1-864 on her behalf and in doing so, agreed to financially support her. (7) In January 2012, after approximately two years of marriage and one month of separation, Azad filed a petition for dissolution of marriage. (8)

Although Nishat did not mention Azad's 1-864 obligation in her response to his petition for dissolution of marriage, she argued at trial that she should be awarded maintenance on the basis of his obligation. (9) The trial court disagreed and limited Nishat's award to USD2,000 per month for three months. (10) Nishat appealed the length of her award, on the grounds that the trial court erred by failing to use a maintenance award to enforce Azad's 1-864 support obligation. (11) On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Washington affirmed Nishat's maintenance award, and held that the trial court did not err in declining to use a maintenance award to enforce Azad's 1-864 obligation. (12)

First published on October 19, 1997, 1-864 is part of Section 213A of the Immigration and Nationality Act. (13) The purpose of the Act is to ensure the applicant does not need to rely on public financial assistance. (14) By signing an 1-864 on behalf of an applicant for permanent residency, a sponsor agrees to take on two primary responsibilities: (1) to provide indefinite financial support and (2) to ensure that the provided support is sufficient to maintain the applicant at least 125% above the federal poverty line. (15) The signed 1-864 is a legally enforceable contract between the sponsor and the federal government, and the sponsored alien is the beneficiary. (16) If a sponsor fails to fulfill his or her I-864 obligation, the sponsored alien, the federal government, and any state government may bring action to enforce the obligation. (17) Additionally, sponsored applicants may seek an execution lien, payment of collection or legal costs, specific performance, and "corresponding remedies available under State law." (18)

Title 26, Chapter 26.09 of the Revised Code of Washington governs the determination of maintenance award for spouses and domestic partners. (19) The statute explicitly provides that the duration of a maintenance award is at the discretion of the courts. (20) When determining whether to grant a maintenance award, courts consider factors such as: duration of the partnership or marriage, standard of living established during the partnership or marriage, and financial resources. (21)

Only a few jurisdictions take into consideration whether a maintenance award is required to enforce a former spouse's I-864 obligation. (22) Notably, the jurisdictions pondering this issue are split on it; in Love v. Love, (23) the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that a maintenance award must include a former spouse's I-864 obligation, while the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in Erler v. Erler (24) found that I-864 obligations are separate from marital obligations. (25) Analogous to Love, in Liu v. Mund, (26) Wenfang Liu, a permanent resident alien, brought an action to enforce the I-864 obligation of Timothy Mund, her sponsor and ex-husband. (27) The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that "[Mund's I-864 obligation] exist[s] apart from whatever rights Liu might or might not have had under Wisconsin divorce law." (28) Regardless of whether courts previously ruled on the issue of whether a maintenance award is required to enforce a former spouse's I-864 obligation or have declined to hear such actions, they clearly recognized a beneficiary's right to bring action to enforce a former spouse's I-864 obligation. (29)

In In re Marriage of Khan, the Court of Appeals of Washington considered whether a maintenance award is required to enforce a sponsor's I-864 obligation to a former spouse. (30) The court noted that up until then, only a few other jurisdictions considered this issue and even fewer published cases regarding it. (31) The court explained that the jurisdictions that considered it were split as to whether it was necessary to enforce a former spouse's I-864 obligation by way of a maintenance award. (32) In particular, the court cited Liu and Love? (33)

The court took a three-step approach in considering whether a maintenance award was necessary to enforce Azad's I-864 obligation to Nishat. (34) First, the court found that federal law does not require that an I-864 obligation must be part of a maintenance award because dissolution proceedings and I-864 obligations are separate from each other. (35) Next, the court found "[Title 26, Chapter 26.09 of the Revised Code of Washington] does not provide that one spouse's contractual obligation under federal immigration law to make payments to the other spouse must be enforced through a maintenance award." (36) Finally, the court considered whether a trial court's failure to enforce a former spouse's I-864 obligation via a maintenance award precludes the beneficiary from later bringing action to enforce that obligation. (37) The court found that since an I-864 obligation exists independently from marital obligations, it does not need to be part of a maintenance award in order to avoid precluding the beneficiary. (38) The court held that enforcement of a former spouse's I-864 obligation is not obligatory via a maintenance award because neither federal law nor Washington state law requires it, and failure to include a former spouse's I-864 obligations in a maintenance award will not preclude the beneficiary. (39)

The court was correct to apply a three-step approach because in doing so it considered not only the requirements of applicable statutes and their relationship to each other, but also Nishat's right and ability to enforce Azad's 1-854 obligation to her. (40) In regards to the first step, the court correctly found that a sponsoring spouse's I-864 obligation and dissolution proceedings are separate and distinct. (41) Next, the court correctly found that Title 26, Chapter 26.09 of the Revised Code of Washington does not require a maintenance award to enforce a former spouse's I-864 obligation. (42) Finally, the court appropriately found that a trial court's refusal to include a former spouse's I-864 obligation in a maintenance award does not preclude the beneficiary from later bringing action to enforce that obligation. (43)

Although the court correctly approached and analyzed the issue, limiting its discussion of other jurisdictions' rulings to only published cases was a...

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