Does Marriage in New York State Hinge on a License?

In a recent New York Supreme Court decision, Justice Matthew Cooper cited the case Ponosovskaya v Stecklow calling New York Domestic Relations Law § 25 a “forgotten relic” from a time when marriage was still primarily a religious institution.  Justice Cooper’s decision in Devorah H. v. Steven S. centered on a discussion of the relevance of § 25 and the importance of obtaining a marriage license today.


Devorah H. and Steven S. participated in an on-the-spot Jewish wedding ceremony in December 2004 when their rabbi insisted that they be married after helping them find an apartment for their families to live together.  The ceremony lacked most of the traditional components and consisted of only the bare-boned necessities for a valid Jewish marriage.  Despite being urged to do so by the rabbi, the couple failed to obtain a marriage license thereafter.  DRL § 25 states “Nothing in this article contained shall be construed to render void by reason of a failure to procure a marriage license any marriage solemnized between persons of full age nor to render void any marriage between minors or with a minor under the legal age of consent where the consent of parent or guardian has been given and such marriage shall be for such cause voidable only as to minors or a minor upon complaint of such minors or minor or of the parent or guardian thereof.”  Under this statute, any marriage would be valid if the partners participated in a formal ceremony, regardless of whether they obtained a marriage license.


The court ultimately found that the marriage between Devorah H. and Steven S. was void.  Though the couple had technically been wed in a formal ceremony, both of them had entered the ceremony with the intent of securing a new apartment and not of being wed.  After the ceremony, each of the parties continued to conduct themselves as though they were single.  Devorah H. filed her tax returns as “single,” continued to receive benefits as a single mother, and never referred to Steven S. as her husband in any court documents in the time that they were “married.”  Steven S. only claimed that they were married once, when they applied to join a new synagogue and sought a discounted membership fee.


In the words of Justice Cooper, “DRL § 25 can only serve to subvert the important governmental interest in regulating the method by which citizens of this state marry.”  The language of § 25 runs inconsistent with the requirement in § 13 that “It shall be necessary for all persons intended to be married in New York state to obtain a marriage license from a town or city clerk in New York state.”  The language of § 13 was also amended after the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges to mandate that marriage licenses could not be denied to same-sex couples on the basis of being same-sex when other statutes had not been modified, something Justice Cooper referred to in his footnotes as “further indication of the legislature’s focus on the marriage licensing process — as opposed to the solemnization process — as the essential component of the method by which two people marry.”


Justice Cooper clearly urged that the Legislature should repeal or reform § 25 to fit within the mold of today’s laws and society, and to ease the burden on courts where parties claim false marriages in an attempt to claim remedies only available through divorce.*


*The information contained in this blog is presented as general information and is not to be construed as legal advice to apply to any person or particular situation. Please keep in mind that the law is constantly changing and therefore you should always consult an attorney for legal advice based on the individual circumstances of your situation.