While New York requires a marriage license, marriages may still be recognized even in the absence of a such a license. Domestic Relations Laws (“DRL”) §13 requires a couple to obtain a marriage license prior to being married. The license must then be provided to the officiant who will perform the ceremony. However, DRL §25 states that a properly solemnized marriage ceremony will not be void based on the failure to obtain a marriage license. The standard for proper solemnization is set forth under DRL §12, which requires only that the parties to the marriage solemnly declare each other as husband and wife (or other spousal arrangement) in the presence of an officiant or clergyman and a witness. New York also requires that parties to a marriage must consent to be married under DRL§10 and that the parties to a marriage must wait 24 hours after obtaining a marriage license before participating in a wedding ceremony unless a waiver is obtained for an emergency ceremony.
The courts have recognized that the ability to marry without a marriage license does not comport with the evolution of society and marriage practices and is more applicable to more traditional religious practices. However, DRL §25 remains in effect and permits marriage without a license. When these circumstances arise, the court is forced to analyze the statutory requirements for a valid marriage to determine if a marriage was valid.
When parties marry without a license, the court will balance the various factor to determine if the marriage is legitimate and should be enforced, or is nothing more than a sham. The legitimacy of the marriage is frequently called into question when the parties separate and one party seeks a divorce for the purpose of division of assets. The other party then argues that they were never married.
For example, what happens when the parties are dating and attend an event with clergy (real or someone who enrolled on the internet) and think its fun to get married as a joke? Or what happens when people are married in a formal ceremony with all of their friends and family but simply forget to get a marriage license? This is a fact based determination.
Such an analysis was made in the case Devorah H. v. Steven S., the court had to determine whether a couple was legally married when they participated in an orthodox Jewish ceremony but did not obtain a marriage license. A rabbi found an apartment for the parties in this matter but conditioned the apartment on the parties being married (to avoid pre-marital cohabitation). The parties met with the rabbi in his office to discuss the apartment the rabbi had in mind for them. The parties were married by the rabbi in his office. Although there were conflicting accounts as to what occurred, the rabbi’s credible testimony provided the court with a basis for determining that the marriage was properly solemnized as outlined in DRL §12. However, the court did not find this sufficient to find that the parties were married because they failed to meet the requirement under DRL §10, which requires the intent to be married. They had also failed to meet the requirement under DRL §13-b, which requires that parties wait 24 hours after obtaining a marriage license before having a wedding ceremony. The court noted that the parties did not go to the rabbi with the intention of being married, but rather to discuss moving into an apartment. Despite living together for more than 10 years, the court determined that they were never married and could therefore not be divorced.
Domestic Relations Law §13
Domestic Relations Law §25
Domestic Relations Law §10
Domestic Relations Law §12
Domestic Relations Law §13-b
Devorah H. v. Steven S., 49 Misc. 3d 630, 631, 12 N.Y.S.3d 858, 859 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015)