Friday, December 10, 2010

Are your papers in order?

4 months of paperwork to sort
Death, taxes, and paperwork
Photo by Joel Bez
My wife is French, I'm American and we got married at the Tower Bridge in London. This involved the nightmare of trying to coordinate the paperwork of three countries to make sure our marriage was legal. If you're like me you hate paperwork but in the international arena, it becomes far more important than many people suspect.

For example, in the United States they've tried to limit ID theft with vital record cross-referencing. Since many identity thieves used to steal the identity of someone already dead (hey, they're not going to complain!), it was thought to be a good idea to join death certificates with birth certificates so that a re-issued birth certificate of a deceased person would, in fact, be marked deceased. This works well if the deceased died in the state they were born, but imagine what happens when a clerk in Montana gets a death certificate from a clerk in Vermont. They don't know each other, they don't know each other's paperwork and the pain of accidentally marking a living person as dead is just too great (I should know: my mother thought it hilarious when she received paperwork telling her that her very alive husband wasn't).

Tower Bridge at Night
Our wedding venue
Now try to imagine the difficulty of different countries trying to verify each other's paperwork. It's a nightmare, but you can have a running head start before it starts chasing you. Again, I remind you of the lesson of Count von Europe: if you had an opportunity to leave tomorrow, would you really want to say "no thanks, I don't have all the paperwork."

At a bare minimum, you need to have the following for everyone involved:
  • Passports
  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Death certificates
If you have a rough strategy for getting out and you know where you are going you can plan ahead and research their requirements. You honestly don't want to be this poor bloke who found out that he had to have his ex-wife's birth certificate before he could claim dual Portuguese/US citizenship (read the rest of that guy's story to get an idea of how much "fun" international paperwork can be).

You're also going to have to learn what an apostille is. An apostille is akin to the stamp a notary public might issue but it's recognized by the countries which have signed on to the requisite Hague Convention. It really does make your life simpler and it's one case of international law making lives easier.

Relaxing after a hard day of getting married
The wedding paperwork
was totally worth it.
Generally speaking, you want to have these documents on hand with apostilles attached. However, this is not always appropriate. As my wife (then fiancée, obviously) and I were trying to sort through the legal issues of three countries recognizing our marriage, we found that for some documents, France would not accept them unless they had been issued within the last six months. Some things are going to hard no matter what you do.

And if you're curious about our Tower Bridge wedding, we have our wedding photos online.