from a judgment of the circuit court for Brown County No.
2014FA506 THOMAS J. WALSH, Judge. Affirmed.
Stark, P.J., Hruz and Seidl, JJ.
STARK, P.J. Lang Vang appeals from a divorce judgment
terminating his marriage to Seng Xiong. Vang argues the
circuit court erred by granting a judgment of divorce because
he and Xiong were never validly married. Vang alternatively
argues that, even if the parties' marriage was valid, the
circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion with
respect to property division and maintenance.
We conclude that, under the facts of this case, the circuit
court properly determined the parties had a legally
recognizable putative marriage, pursuant to our prior
decision in Xiong ex rel. Edmondson v. Xiong, 2002
WI.App. 110, 255 Wis.2d 693, 648 N.W.2d 900');">648 N.W.2d 900. We further
conclude the court properly exercised its discretion in
dividing the parties' property and awarding maintenance
to Xiong for an indefinite duration. We therefore affirm.
Xiong petitioned for divorce from Vang in May 2014. Her
petition alleged the parties were married in September 1980
at Ban Vinai, a refugee camp in Thailand. Vang subsequently
moved to dismiss Xiong's divorce petition, contending the
parties were never legally married.
On January 23 and July 6, 2015, the circuit court held
evidentiary hearings regarding the validity of the
parties' marriage. During the hearings, Xiong testified
that she and Vang were married on September 24, 1980, in a
wedding ceremony performed by her uncle. She testified a
separate "strings ceremony" was performed three
days after the wedding. Xiong explained she did not want to
marry Vang, but she was pressured or "forced" to do
so by her family.
A number of photographs were introduced into evidence during
the July 6, 2015 hearing. Xiong testified one of those
photographs-Exhibit 6-was taken in October 1980 and showed
her and Vang wearing Hmong wedding clothing. Xiong testified
Exhibits 7, 8, 37, 38, and 39 were photographs of the
"strings ceremony" that took place three days after
the wedding. Handwriting on the back of Exhibits 37, 38, and
39 indicated these photographs were taken on September 27,
1980, and depicted "Lang and Seng's wedding."
Xiong identified this handwriting as Vang's. Xiong also
testified that two other photographs, marked as Exhibit 40,
showed her wearing wedding clothes four days after the
marriage ceremony, when she and Vang went to visit her
Xiong testified she and Vang came to the United States
together in 1983. Over the next five years, they had four
children together. Xiong cared for the parties' children
so that Vang could go to engineering school. Xiong testified
she learned in 2005 that Vang had a "girlfriend, "
and she and Vang stopped living together in December 2008.
When asked why she waited until 2014 to file for divorce,
Xiong responded, "Because at the time my kids [were] in
school, in college, and I don't want this … to
affect them. And then I-at the same time I was …
having hope against hope that he still love us, his kids and
me during that time."
Several of Xiong's family members corroborated her
testimony that she and Vang were married in Thailand in
September 1980. Xiong's uncle, Ga Cheng Xiong, testified
he was the leader of the Xiong clan in the Ban Vinai refugee
camp at that time and was involved in "marriage
negotiations" leading up to Xiong and Vang's
wedding. Ga Cheng Xiong confirmed that Xiong initially
refused to marry Vang, and after two days of unsuccessful
negotiations Vang approached Ga Cheng Xiong asking for help.
Ga Cheng Xiong conceded that Xiong was ultimately coerced or
"indirect[ly] forc[ed]" to marry Vang. He testified
Vang paid four silver bars "for the dowry" and
fifteen silver coins "for the fees." Ga Cheng Xiong
subsequently performed a marriage ceremony between Xiong and
Vang, in accordance with all Hmong marriage rituals, during
which Vang agreed to be Xiong's husband. Ga Cheng Xiong
confirmed that a separate "string ceremony" was
performed three days later.
Ga Cheng Xiong's wife, Bao Vang, testified Vang and his
relatives "came to [her] house and beg[ged] or ask[ed]
[her] husband to go with them and to plea with [Xiong] so
that maybe [Xiong] … would marry [Vang]." Bao
Vang testified she cooked food for the subsequent wedding
ceremony, which was performed by her husband. She heard her
husband declare Vang and Xiong to be husband and wife during
Xiong's older brother, Nao Tou Xiong, testified he first
met Vang when Vang approached Xiong's family seeking to
marry her. Nao Tou Xiong testified the subsequent marriage
negotiations lasted three days, and Xiong was ultimately
forced to marry Vang. Nao Tou Xiong confirmed that Vang paid
a bride price in order to marry Xiong, and a wedding ceremony
was subsequently performed according to Hmong marriage
Nao Tou Xiong clarified that the Hmong do not have marriage
certificates, and marriages are instead "recorded"
in the oral tradition. He denied that "cohabitation
ceremonies" are a part of traditional Hmong culture and
testified there is "no acceptance for cohabitation in
Hmong life, Hmong society." He further explained that
sex outside of marriage is "not appropriate in the Hmong
culture" and is viewed as disrespecting or dishonoring
"the family, … the girl, and … the
In addition to the testimony summarized above, Xiong
introduced several documents at the evidentiary hearings that
referred to Vang as her husband. For instance, Xiong
introduced her United States immigration file, which included
multiple documents listing Vang as her "husband" or
"spouse." Xiong testified Vang filled out several
of these documents. Xiong also introduced a quit claim deed,
dated November 28, 2012, by which "LANG C. VANG and SENG
XIONG, husband and wife, " transferred property to two
of their children.
Vang denied during his testimony at the evidentiary hearings
that he and Xiong were ever married. He testified he and
Xiong met in 1980, were "friend[s], " and went on a
few dates. According to Vang, the Hmong elders in the Ban
Vinai refugee camp felt that Vang and Xiong's
relationship was "mak[ing] them lose face, " so
they forced Vang and Xiong to live together. Vang testified
he did not want to live with Xiong, and she did not want to
live with him. He further testified he never intended to
become married to Xiong, and, to the best of his knowledge,
she did not intend to become married to him.
Vang conceded a ceremony took place in September 1980
involving "dinners and food, " but he testified it
was merely a "cohabitation" ceremony, rather than a
wedding. Vang denied that any "string ceremony" was
performed. He further testified he never filed for a marriage
license in Thailand, Laos, or the United States.
Vang acknowledged that he and Xiong ultimately immigrated to
the United States together and lived together until 2005.
However, he asserted that, after "liv[ing] together for
that long with misery life, " they mutually decided to
separate. Vang testified he subsequently married his current
wife, Patty Vang. He contended he never gave Xiong any reason
to believe she was his legal wife because they "never
married legally" and "never registered in any
register office from Thailand or from the United
States." Although Vang acknowledged he and Xiong had
filed joint income tax returns "as husband and wife,
" he asserted they had "no choice" but to do
so "because there's no … statement in the
filing instructions saying that if I don't have a legal
marriage, I cannot file."
Vang also relied on the testimony of two expert witnesses in
support of his position that he and Xiong were never legally
married. First, Suwatchai Samakkasetkorn, a family law
attorney who had practiced in Thailand since 2007, testified
Vang and Xiong were considered illegal immigrants under Thai
law while they resided in the Ban Vinai refugee
camp. Samakkasetkorn testified that, under Thai
law, illegal immigrants are not permitted to "obtain and
have a recognized marriage in the nation of Thailand."
Samakkasetkorn further testified that, for a marriage to be
considered valid under Thai law, both parties "have to
go to register the marriage at the register office."
Vang also presented the testimony of Yang Thai Vang, a Ph.D.
student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying
cultural anthropology, with a focus on Hmong language and
culture. Yang Thai Vang testified he has
participated in or witnessed hundreds of Hmong marriages.
Contrary to Xiong's testimony, he opined that the
photograph marked as Exhibit 6 did not depict traditional
Hmong wedding clothing because, unlike the clothes shown in
that photograph, Hmong wedding clothes must be "brand
new." He further opined that Exhibits 6 and 40 did not
depict a wedding consistent with Hmong marriage traditions
because the marriage negotiators were not included in those
photographs. Yang Thai Vang also testified that the Hmong do
not recognize forced marriages.
After considering the evidence presented by the parties, the
circuit court concluded it was "not completely clear
… whether Thailand would or would not recognize"
Vang and Xiong's marriage. Stated differently, the court
concluded the testimony was "ambiguous, at best" as
to whether Vang and Xiong were validly married under Thai
law. The court therefore proceeded to consider whether the
parties' relationship qualified as a putative marriage
under Xiong. In that case, we explained that a
putative marriage is "a marriage which has been
solemnized in proper form and celebrated in good faith by one
or both parties, but which, by reason of some legal
infirmity, is either void or voidable." See
Xiong, 255 Wis.2d 693, ¶22 (quoting Christopher L.
Blakesley, The Putative Marriage Doctrine, 60 Tul.
L. Rev. 1, 6 (1985)).
In applying this standard, the circuit court found that the
"most credible evidence in this case tells me that there
was a ceremony, " and that ceremony "involved
wedding clothing." The court rejected Yang Thai
Vang's opinion that the clothes shown in Exhibit 6 were
not wedding clothes, instead finding that, "for these
particular individuals, the clothing that they were [wearing]
in those photographs [was] culturally significant for
them." The court further found there was "a
celebrant of this ceremony, " and "a marriage
occurred that was appropriate to" Hmong culture.
The circuit court next found that, although it was undisputed
Xiong did not want to marry Vang, "the most credible
testimony" presented to the court indicated that Vang
"did want to enter into this relationship and wanted it
to be a wedding." The court found that both Vang and
Xiong understood the September 24, 1980 ceremony was a
marriage ceremony, and they "didn't understand that
this was simply going to be a friendship." While the
court acknowledged Vang's testimony that neither he nor
Xiong believed they were married, it explained:
I'm satisfied that the most credible testimony that was
offered here to me today … [was] that both of these
parties believed they were married and they were venturing
forth together on this life of matrimony; and as verification
or what helped strengthen my conviction of that is all of
these documents that were submitted to me, particularly the
documents in [Xiong's immigration file], which were
largely prepared by [Vang], indicating that the two of them
were married. He was representing that they were. His
testimony was that once he got to the United States, he
really was unsure as to what they should do, and that's
why the-the documents showed up with the two of them as
I, frankly, don't find that testimony to be credible
whatsoever. I find that … testimony to be incredible,
in that the reality is when the parties arrived here in this
country, they arrived representing that they were married,
they behaved as if they were married, they behaved as if they
were married because they believed it. They signed real
estate deeds. They signed tax returns.
I'm satisfied that they behaved in every respect like a
married couple did because they believed they were married.
Based on these findings, the circuit court concluded the
parties had a putative marriage that should be accorded
recognition under Wisconsin law. The court therefore denied
Vang's motion to dismiss Xiong's divorce petition.
The circuit court ultimately entered a judgment of divorce on
June 6, 2016. As relevant to this appeal, the court equally
divided the parties' divisible property. The court
treated as divisible property a home that Vang purchased in
2008, following his purported marriage to Patty Vang, and
awarded that home to Vang. In order to offset that award, the
court assigned to Vang approximately $44, 000 in student loan
debt, which Xiong had incurred during the parties'
marriage by cosigning a student loan for one of their
children. The court also ordered Vang to pay Xiong $2, 708.33
per month in maintenance for an indefinite duration. Vang now
Validity of the ...