Case law Developments in PIL Uncategorised

Two Weddings, Two Children, Two Fathers? – The German Supreme Court Works its Magic

This post was written by Verena Wodniansky-Wildenfeld, University of Vienna.

On 8 March 2023, the German Supreme Court issued a judgment on the paternity of two children. In the case at hand, the validity of the marriage of the mother, which gives rise to the presumption of paternity, had to be determined as a preliminary issue. This was further complicated by the interference of a talaq divorce.

Facts of the Case

An Iranian-German woman married an Iranian man in Iran in 1996 and was subsequently divorced by a talaq in Iran in 2006. The recognition of this divorce was refused in Germany, as is usual for reasons of public policy in connection with the right to be heard, in 2012 by a decision of a German administrative authority. In 2009, the woman remarried another Iranian man in Iran and gave birth to two children in 2010 and 2013, who have had their habitual residence in Germany ever since. The second husband was registered as the father in the German birth register. The registry office wanted to correct this registration in favour of the first husband, as Section 1592(1) of the German Civil Code (BGB) considers the husband of the mother at the time of the birth as the legal father of the child.

The precondition for the preliminary question

The core issue before the German Supreme Court was the determination of the law applicable to parenthood. In the absence of overriding rules of EU or international law (the Bilateral Treaty between Germany and Iran did not apply because the mother of the children has both German and Iranian nationality), the court turned to national conflicts rules. Article 19(1) of the Introductory Act to the German Civil Code (EGBGB) provides for an alternative connecting factor based either on the law of the child’s habitual residence or, for each parent separately, on his or her nationality. In the case of married persons, parentage may also be determined according to the law governing the general effects of their marriage at the time of birth.

As the children had their habitual residence in Germany, the Court examined parentage in accordance with German substantive law. Accordingly, the children’s father would be the person who was married to the child’s mother at the time of birth.

The question arose to whom the mother was effectively married at the time of birth. The court therefore assessed the validity of the second marriage as a preliminary question. The substantive requirements for marriage are governed by the law of the nationality of each of the spouses (Article 13(1) EGBGB). Accordingly, the second marriage violated from a German viewpoint the prohibition of bigamy (Section 1306 BGB), as the Iranian divorce was not recognised in Germany. For the mother of the child, the second marriage would merely be dissolvable under German law, but not automatically null and void by operation of law (ex lege). For the second husband, who is exclusively of Iranian nationality, Iranian law applies according to Article 13(1) EGBGB, which stipulates that a man must not marry a woman who is already married (Article 1050 Iranian Civil Code), otherwise the marriage is considered to be invalid.

In this respect, the Court first had to decide whether the talaq divorce with the first husband was effective in order to answer the question of the validity of the marriage with the second husband.

The Outcome

The legally binding decision of the German administrative authority not to recognise the talaq divorce has the consequence that it has no legal effect in Germany. A separate conflict-of-laws assessment is therefore not required, at least in cases with a strong national link, as in the present case. The Court therefore correctly assumed that the second marriage of the mother was a violation of the Iranian prohibition of bigamy and therefore null and void, as the divorce had to be considered invalid.

In order to avoid a situation in which the status of the parties to a marriage is in doubt (limping marriage), the “stricter” law that is most opposed to the marriage is generally applied when examining the substantive requirements for marriage. According to this principle, the second marriage would be considered void, as it is considered void under Iranian law. However, this would be a “paradox” result in so far as the marriage would not be null and void under either of the two legal systems when examined individually. Therefore, the Court deviates from the principle of applying the stricter law and, exceptionally, allows the milder German law to decide the consequence. The result is that under German law two marriages existed at the time of birth. The court resolves the subsequent double presumption of paternity by an analogous application of Section 1593 sentence 3 BGB (A child that could be both the child of the former husband and the new husband is to be regarded only as the child of the new husband). Consequently, only the second marriage is decisive, and the second husband was registered as the father of both children.


Although the reasoning of the decision may appear contrived and somewhat forced, the outcome reflects the factual circumstances. The prior legally binding decision not to recognise the divorce and the resulting lack of a conflict-of-laws analysis forces the court to reach deep into its bag of tricks in order not to undermine a presumption of paternity that is effective in both legal systems. Adaptation would normally be the tool of choice in cases where the result of a conflicts analysis is unsatisfactory because the legal consequences would not arise in either jurisdiction. In the case at hand, however, adapting the outcome was not possible due to the interplay between procedural law and substantive law. The procedural effect of the refusal to recognise the divorce must be clearly distinguished from the conflict-of-laws implications. The court is therefore facing the challenge of making corrections at the level of the legal consequences in order to achieve the desired result. Dogmatically as well as methodologically, it is always problematic to put the cart before the horse in this way, and once again the approach taken by the Court is not flawless. Instead of following legal practice, the Court chose the most practical solution in the individual case – which is always where legal practice and science have to part company.

3 comments on “Two Weddings, Two Children, Two Fathers? – The German Supreme Court Works its Magic

  1. Thanks Verena for reporting on this interesting case.

    What is surprising is how the BGH could rule that the second marriage was void under Iranian law where it was obviously entered into on the basis of the divorce. Why the denial of recognition to the Iranian divorce should interfere with this question is not obvious. I am not sure I see exactly which law should have been adapted to offer a better outcome. Iranian law? But then, why not apply directly Iranian law fully?

    • Verena Wodniansky-Wildenfeld

      This is precisely the point. The Supreme Court is bound by the decision not to recognise the divorce on a procedural level – which “trumps” the pure conflict-of-law assessment. Therefore, even if a German court were to apply Iranian law alone, it could not consider the divorce valid.

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