Today an appeals court in Washington State held that an I-864 beneficiary is not entitled to receive spousal maintenance (i.e., alimony) on account of the I-864, Affidavit of Support. But the court made clear that the beneficiary is still able to seek enforcement of the Affidavit in a contract suit against the sponsor. This decision leads to a very inefficient situation, where two separate legal cases will be needed in order for the beneficiary to defend her rights. In Matter of Khan, No. 44814-9-II (Div. 2 2014) involved an Indian citizen who was married for two years to a United States citizen. The couple separated, and the husband petitioned for dissolution of marriage in January 2012. None of the pleadings in the divorce case mentioned the I-864, but the trial court considered the I-864 and ordered temporary maintenance of $2,000 based on the I-864. The beneficiary appealed, arguing that the trial court should not have limited the duration of the support, since it was based on the I-864 obligation which lasts potentially indefinitely. Instead, she argued, the courts should have based the duration based on the five events stated in the I-864 that end the support obligation.
The court of appeals disagreed with the beneficiary. The court cited three reasons for why it was not appropriate to use alimony to enforce the I-864 support duty:
First, the court found there was no conflict between state alimony rules and the I-864 obligations. Rather, the court held that state-ordered alimony are independent obligations.
Second, the court looked at the Washington statute governing alimony and found that none of the factors concerned "one spouse's contractual obligation under federal immigration law."
Third - and very importantly for I-864 beneficiaries - the court rejected the concern that the beneficiary could not bring a separate suite to enforce the support obligation. Other courts have found that a beneficiary cannot bring a separate lawsuit for I-864 support after arguing for such support in a divorce case. But the Khan court specifically held that the beneficiary could bring a different lawsuit to enforce her I-864 rights because the divorce court "did not adjudicate an action for breach of the sponsor's I-864 obligation."
The Khan case leads to a frustrating and inefficient situation for I-864 beneficiaries. By holding that a divorce court is not required to order alimony based on the I-864 the Khan court leaves beneficiaries in the position of having to bring a separate lawsuit to recover I-864 support. The Khan decisions leaves open the possibility that a divorce court could order support based on the I-864 if the judge found doing so appropriate, but if alimony is not ordered it will be difficult to appeal.
On the other hand, the Khan decision creates a new Washington State precedent that beneficiaries are entitled to bring a lawsuit against I-864 sponsors. This is great news for beneficiaries. And because beneficiaries are entitled to recover attorney fees and the costs of litigation from I-864 sponsors, the expense of these lawsuits will be born by I-864 sponsors.