Immigrant Ex Gets Alimony Despite Prenup

     (CN) — A wealthy real estate agent who balked at paying his immigrant ex-wife alimony must now foot the bill to support her, the Ninth Circuit determined today.
     The decision vacates a lower court’s ruling in the husband’s favor, holding that immigration documents mandate that in nearly all cases, an immigration sponsor must continue to support his or her former spouse regardless of what premarital documents say.
     Judge Lynn Adelman, writing for a three-judge panel in San Francisco, summarized the couple’s history in his 16-page opinion.
     Yashar Erler, a U.S. citizen originally from Turkey, married Turkish citizen Ayla Erler in 2009. As part of the marriage contract, Yashar — a real estate agent in Oceanside, Calif., reportedly worth nearly $5 million — had agreed to provide his wife with support to keep her at an income at least 125 percent above the federal poverty line.
     The Erlers’ marriage soon crumbled, and they separated in March 2011 and divorced more than a year later. In a premarital agreement, both sides had agreed to forgo alimony if they divorced.
     After the separation, Ayla moved into an apartment with her adult son, Dogukan Solmaz, who supported the pair on $3,200 a month. Ayla also received food stamps from the state of California and has a Turkish pension, which she claims she cannot access from the U.S.
     A month after the divorce was final, Ayla sued Yashar in federal court, claiming that he had given her only $3,500 to help move and that he still owed her money under the I-864 Affidavit of Support they had both signed when she immigrated to the U.S.
     I-864 affidavits are federal documents that require immigrants to prove they can support themselves financially after relocating to the U.S. They are meant to prevent immigrants from becoming “public charges” who need support after divorces from their sponsors. Most family-based immigration visas and some employment-based visas require such affidavits.
     Yashar, who represented himself in the lawsuit, argued that the premarital agreement foreclosed alimony, and that Solmaz had been supporting Ayla at a rate above the federal poverty line, anyway.
     Yashar also claimed the food stamps and Turkish pension benefits put Ayla above the poverty line — which was $15,000 per year for a two-person household in 2012 — even without Solmaz’s contribution.
     U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that Yashar still had an obligation to support his ex-wife because, under the terms of the I-864, a spouse’s obligations do not end with divorce. However, Breyer ultimately let Yashar off the hook, stating that Solmaz’s income satisfied the support obligation.
     The Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court’s rationale but disagreed with the outcome, noting that “neither divorce judgment nor a premarital agreement may terminate an obligation of support. The affidavit of support is a contract … and contracts are interpreted to give effect to the reasonable expectations of the parties.”
     Adelman also disregarded Solmaz’s income in his ruling.
     “Relieving the sponsor of his duty to support when the immigrant is fortunate enough to find another person willing to provide the necessary support could itself be considered a windfall to the sponsor,” Adelman wrote. “[But] we see no reason why the sponsor, rather than the immigrant, should receive the windfall.”
     Without enforcing the affidavit, Adelman found, sponsors could merely hold out on support payments waiting for “charitable third parties to pick up the slack.”     
     Ayla is pleased with the outcome, her attorney said, noting the decision ” has renewed her faith in the U.S. legal system.”
     David Sanker, of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, added that the decision is only the second appellate decision to address the I-864 requirements.
     In a two-page dissenting opinion, Judge Mary Schroeder chastised the Ninth Circuit for attempting to prevent a future scenario in which Ayla dropped beneath the 125 percent poverty line threshold. “[Yashar] has not asked for this speculative future beneficence,” she wrote. She also feared that forcing Yashar to pay could put him at risk of becoming a dependent in the future.
     Lawsuits seeking to force sponsors to adhere to I-864 affidavits have reached federal courts ever since 2005, when a judge in Indiana first ruled that a sponsor needed to pay support after a divorce. In 2014, a New Jersey federal judge similarly held that prenuptial agreements did not invalidate the I-864 affidavit’s requirements.
     Yashar could not be reached for comment at a residential number listed in San Carlos.