Nassau County Family Law Blog

Friday, August 28, 2015

New York Court Holds: No Marriage License? No divorce!

What happens if a ‘marriage’ never technically occurred, and the parties wish to seek relief in divorce court?

It may seem unimaginable, but one recent New York County case has solidified the notion that in divorce court, anything is possible. In Devorah H. v. Steven S., the petitioner filed for divorce from her (presumed) husband, whom she met in an orthodox Jewish chat room in 2003. According to the court’s holding, the parties began living together at some point in 2004, and later moved to a larger apartment to accommodate their five combined children.

At trial, the court accepted testimony from both the parties, as well as the rabbi, who contended he solemnized their union on either December 20 or 21, 2004, and that it was witnessed by two elderly male congregants.

Evidence concerning what actually took took at the "wedding" ceremony is in dispute. First, the plaintiff contends that she was given a bracelet in lieu of a wedding ring as a symbol of their union, however the rabbi claims to have no recollection of this alleged break with tradition. Second, the traditional Jewish marriage contract known as the Ketubah was alleged to be safe in the plaintiff’s possession, however the rabbi insisted it had been destroyed in a “fit of pique on the subway” by the defendant. Lastly, the rabbi exhibited a noted discomfort with discussing the details of the “wedding” at the trial, stating that “I normally like to have a hall, with a chuppah (wedding canopy), seven blessings, two cups of wine, and a whole band and dance for them, but this was something very, very unusual."

In sum, the court was left with the plaintiff’s assertion that a valid wedding and marriage took place), the defendant’s assertion that they were never married, and the rabbi’s vague recollection of an overall uncomfortable and nontraditional experience.

In the end, the court relied on the one indisputable fact: the parties never obtained a marriage license. Despite a centuries-old New York domestic relations law that can work to trump this requirement if a valid wedding and solemnization takes place, the court had a hard time finding that the parties intended to be married at all – and certainly did not engage in a “traditional” wedding ceremony, particularly under the applicable laws of their Orthodox Jewish faith.

In conclusion, the plaintiff’s divorce action was dismissed on the simple premise that she was never really married in the first place. In all likelihood, the parties will be required to decide upon property division and alimony matters on their own since the court cannot intervene as in traditional divorce.

As the above case demonstrates, marriage and divorce laws can be complicated to navigate. If you are considering separation or divorce and would like to speak to an experienced, reputable divorce attorney, please contact Howard B. Leff, who serves clients in and around the Long Island and Metropolitan New York area. He can be reached at 516.739.7500.

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