New York’s Domestic Relations Law §25, enacted in 1907, provides that a marriage is valid, even in the absence of a marriage license, if it was properly solemnized. However, New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper, in his May 29, 2014 decision in Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow held that D.R.L. §25 could not be used to validate a marriage ceremony that failed to meet the  legal requirements of Mexico where the ceremony was performed. While so holding, Justice Cooper called for the statute to be amended or repealed, and joined the debate on whether Universal Life Church “ministers” could “properly solemnize” marriages.

Justice Cooper’s recitation of the facts merits quotation:

[Ms. Ponorovskaya], who is a clothing designer and business owner in Manhattan, and [Mr. Stecklow], a lawyer, began their relationship in 2004. While in Mexico for a 2009 New Year’s celebration, [Mr. Stecklow] proposed to [Ms. Ponorovskaya] overlooking the Mayan ruins in Tulum. The parties subsequently planned a Mexican destination wedding at the Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa. . . . On February 18th, the couple had a wedding ceremony on the resort’s beach. The ceremony was performed under a chuppah, a canopy under which a couple stands during a Jewish wedding. Certain Hebrew prayers were recited, vows were exchanged, and there was a glass-breaking ritual, as is customary at Jewish weddings.

Despite these traditions, the ceremony was not performed by a rabbi. Instead it was conducted by [Mr. Stecklow]’s cousin, Dr. Keith Arbeitman, a dentist who lives in New York. In 2003, in order to perform a marriage for friends, he became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church (“ULC”), a distinction easily achieved by paying a fee on the ULC’s website. . . . [A]t oral argument on the motion, [Ms. Ponorovskaya]’s counsel produced a certificate that he printed off the internet certifying that Dr. Arbeitman is indeed a minister in good standing with the ULC. Likewise, during the ceremony Dr. Arbeitman told the audience, “I am an ordained minister — this will be a legal union.”

In advance of the wedding and while still at home in New York City, the parties filled out a questionnaire that Dreams Tulum Resort provides all couples planning their weddings there. . . . . The second inquiry on the questionnaire reads: “Your ceremony will be: A) Civil B) Religious/symbolic.” The parties crossed out the words “civil” and “religious” and wrote, in capital letters, “SYMBOLIC” next to choice B.

Additionally, the parties received a pamphlet, entitled “Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa Wedding Guide 2010,” which contains a section labeled “List of Legal Requirements,” extensively delineating various fees, documentation and medical tests required “in order to get legally married in Tulum.” At the top of this list, it states “For symbolic ceremonies the following list is not aplicable [sic], this list is only for legal marriage.” Two pages later, under the heading “Additional Information for Ceremony,” it is expressly states that a “religious ceremony is not legally valid” and that in order for there to be a legal marriage, “the judge must perform ceremony [sic];.”

[Ms. Ponorovskaya] disavows ever having read any of the materials provided by the resort dealing with the different types of wedding ceremonies or having had any knowledge of the requirements for being legally married in Mexico. In taking this position, she claims, rather unusually, that she was only involved in certain aspects of the wedding planning, such as selecting the food and decreeing that all attendees dress in white, while [Mr. Stecklow] managed all major decisions. As a result, she asserts that only [Mr. Stecklow] was privy to the information provided by the resort, only he knew that there was a distinction between a symbolic and a legal wedding, and only he opted for the wedding to be symbolic.

No certificate of marriage signed by either Ms. Ponorovskaya, Mr. Stecklow or the wedding officiant was produced. The only record of the wedding was a video, submitted as an exhibit to Ms. Ponorovskaya’s papers, vividly depicting the ceremony: the “participants and guests dressed in white, the couple taking their vows, the palm trees swaying, the white sand glistening, and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” playing on the soundtrack.”

Justice Cooper held that regardless of what Ms. Ponorovskaya may or may not have known, the wedding ceremony in no way complied with the dictates of the law of the Mexican state where the ceremony was performed. It was, by Mexican statute, “an absolute nullity.”

Justice Cooper noted that couples who decide to have destination weddings in Mexico or other exotic locales, but wish to avoid the burdensome legal requirements that those locales may impose often opt to have a civil ceremony in New York either before or after they have their symbolic wedding. Likewise here, upon their return, the parties commenced the process of applying online for a New York marriage license, but failed to follow through.

Ms. Ponorovskaya, contending that the wedding ceremony constituted a valid marriage irrespective of the dictates of Mexican law, commenced this action for divorce. She sought equitable distribution of marital property and maintenance. Justice Cooper stated that she would be entitled to such relief “only if she were legally married to [Mr. Stecklow].” [This is questioned in the comment below.]

Mr. Stecklow moved to dismiss the divorce action. In their motion papers, each party pointed to events which bolstered his or her position as to whether or not the parties considered themselves to be married. Of note, Ms. Ponorovskaya annexed to her papers a transcript of a New York City Civil Court proceeding in which Mr. Stecklow represented Ms. Ponorovskaya. When asked by the judge to describe his relation to Ms. Ponorovskaya, Mr. Stecklow responded, “this is my wife.” Similarly, on the contract for a purchase of a cooperative apartment, Mr. Stecklow stated that Ms. Ponorovskaya was his wife, and on a mortgage application, Mr. Stecklow checked the box indicating that he was married.

Mr. Stecklow, on the other hand, contended that both of them were fully aware that they were not legally married. He produced copies of the parties’ income tax returns for the years following the trip to Mexico. Mr. Stecklow filed his returns as “single.” Ms. Ponorovskaya filed her returns as “head of household” on behalf of herself and her son from a prior relationship. [It may be noted that in last week’s blog post on the May 22, 2014 decision of New York County Surrogate Nora S. Anderson in Estate of Tran (pdf), it was held that as a matter of law,  filing tax returns as “single” did not did not, as a matter of law, estop a woman from claiming to be the decedent’s surviving spouse in contested estate proceedings.] 

Here, both parties acknowledged the ceremony did not create a valid marriage in Mexico. Mr. Stecklow, relying on principles of comity, contended that since the marriage was not valid in Mexico, it was not valid in New York; that if D.R.L. §25 applied at all in this day and age, it should be applied only to marriages performed within the State of New York. Ms. Ponorovskaya, however, argued that D.R.L. §25 required a New York court to recognize their Mexican wedding ceremony as having created a valid marriage.

Mr. Stecklow also disputed Ms. Ponorovskaya’s assertion that the marriage was properly solemnized under New York law. It was Ms. Ponorovskaya’s position that Dr. Arbeitman, as an ordained ULC minister, was authorized under Article 3 of the Domestic Relations Law to officiate at the wedding. Mr. Stecklow contended that the Universal Life Church is not a real religion, and therefore Dr. Arbeitman was not a minister or clergyman who may legally perform weddings, even in New York.

Dismissing the action, Justice Cooper noted that New York has long recognized that, barring public policy concerns, the validity of a marriage is determined by the laws of the state or country in which it was performed. The doctrine of comity — under which this state defers to the laws of the jurisdiction where a marriage took place — has resulted in New York’s recognition not only of common law marriages, but of other marriages that could not be legally entered into in New York. Most notably, principles of comity guided courts to grant recognition to same-sex marriages performed in other countries and in other states prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York. Conversely, Justice Cooper noted instances in which comity resulted in the recognition that certain marriages were not valid.

Justice Cooper took care to distinguish the Appellate Division, Second Department’s decision in Matter of Farraj, 72 A.D.3d 1082, 900 N.Y.S.2d 340 (2nd Dept 2010). That case involved an appeal from a Kings County Surrogate’s Court proceeding for a compulsory accounting in which the validity of the petitioner’s marital status to the decedent was at issue. In that case, Rabaa Hanash, claiming to be the widow of Daoud Farraj, both residents of Brooklyn, sought to have a formal Islamic marriage ceremony. Under Islamic law, marriages must be conducted at the residence of the bride’s eldest male relative, which was the Ms. Hanash’s brother, a resident of New Jersey. The couple arranged for an Imam (an Islamic clergyman) from New York to accompany them to New Jersey and perform the ceremony. Upon the conclusion of the wedding ceremony and the signing of an Islamic marriage certificate, they immediately returned to New York for the reception. The couple never obtained a marriage license either in New Jersey or in New York. Under New Jersey law, the marriage was not valid under any circumstances without a marriage license.

Four years later, after they had continuously lived together, continuously believed themselves to be married, and continuously held themselves out to be married, the decedent died without a will. The validity of the couple’s marriage was called into question by the decedent’s son from a previous marriage. The Surrogate deemed the marriage valid and allow the wife to inherit. The Second Department affirmed.

Justice Cooper carefully noted that while raising similar issues, the factual differences between Farraj and the instant case compelled a divergent outcome.

Justice Cooper noted that D.R.L. §25 can be characterized as an obscure, arcane provision, one that is likely little known to judges, lawyers and legislators alike. It would undoubtedly come as a surprise to all those couples who patiently wait on the long lines at the Marriage License Bureau at the Office of the City Clerk in lower Manhattan to learn that, despite the instructions they were given, a marriage license is not really a requirement for marrying after all.

In order for our system of regulating and documenting marriages to function, it is a good thing indeed that few people are aware of DRL § 25 and its provision making the procurement of a marriage license an optional component of the marriage process. Without an executed marriage license being recorded, one will have difficulty proving they are married when applying for health insurance as a covered spouse or seeking social security benefits as a surviving spouse. Obviously, without marriage licenses there would be no workable way of knowing and proving who is married in this state.

For Justice Cooper, the question remained why was D.R.L. §25 enacted and, more importantly, why was it still on the books? It’s purpose was to avoid the evil resulting from invalidating marriages because of technical defects in the ceremony. The statute also recognized the role organized religion played at that time. In 1907, most weddings still took place in religious houses of worship, with their structured, formal and public proceedings, and their established systems of parish, dioceses or congregational record-keeping. In fact, marriage licenses were a relatively recent innovation, with statewide registration of marriages not having begun until 1881 at the earliest. Thus, D.R.L. §25 was enacted at a time when traditional religious practices continued to hold sway and governmental regulation of marriage was still relatively new. Consequently, the statute was likely meant to protect the old ways by insuring that the validity of a proper religious marriage would not be jeopardized by the failure to obtain a marriage license, a requirement that in 1907 must still have struck many legislators as a mere legal technicality.

Justice Cooper noted the world has changed considerably since 1907, and marriage traditions have progressed even more. Perhaps almost as many people are now marrying in civil ceremonies as religious ones. Even those marriages that are religious do not necessarily take place within the confines of traditional organized religion. The basic rationale for the existence of D.R.L. §25 — the need to protect the sanctity of traditional, formal religious marriages from the threat of government imposed legal requirements — is no longer relevant.

Whatever the reasons for the continued existence of this archaic statute, DRL §25 remains the law. However, Justice Cooper nevertheless held that there is a distinction between applying it to marriages entered into in New York State and extending its reach to other jurisdictions with different laws. Acknowledging the invalidity of the marriage under Mexican law, principles of comity were respected.

It should not be permitted to then allow our citizens to travel to distant lands, fail to comply with the laws, procedures and customs of those lands, and then invoke DRL §25 to excuse their noncompliance.

D.R.L. §25 should not be extended to allow couples who embark on destination weddings the right to blithely ignore the clearly defined laws of a country in which they are guests and, by imposing New York law on an unwilling host, still claim the privilege of being legally married. Accordingly, D.R.L. §25 should be construed to apply to weddings that take place outside of New York State only under the most extraordinary of circumstances. Such extraordinary circumstances were not present here.

Although not necessary to his decision, Justice Cooper also questioned whether the dentist, Dr. Arbeitman, was “a clergyman or minister of any religion” (D.R.L. §11 referring to the definition in Religious Corporations Law §2). Ironically, Justice Cooper noted, the Second Department — which decided Matter of Farraj , had also held that weddings performed by Universal Life Church ministers were not properly solemnized and did not constitute valid marriages in Ranieri v. Ranieri, 146 A.D.2d 34, 539 N.Y.S.2d 382 (2nd Dept 1989). For more than twenty-five years, Ranieri was the only pronouncement from an appellate court on the validity of marriages performed by ULC ministers. Last year, the Appellate Division, Third Department, in a case also involving the legality of a ULC minister to perform a wedding, reversed the lower court’s finding that the marriage was invalid and remanded the matter for a determination to be made as to whether “the ULC constitutes a church’ within the meaning of the Religious Corporations Law” (Oswald v Oswald, 107 AD3d 45, 48, 963 N.Y.S.2d 762 [3rd Dept 2013]). In so doing, the Oswald court wrote, “Ranieri was decided a quarter century ago, and we simply cannot presume that the belief system, structure and inner workings of the ULC have remained static since that time” (id. at 47). Upon remand, the case is now pending before the Supreme Court, Washington County.

Whether the ULC is a church or not, and whatever its belief system may be, compared to other online “religions” that enable people to pay a small fee, obtain a certificate of ordination and then perform religious wedding ceremonies, it seems practically mainstream. There is, for instance, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster [], a religious group comprised of atheists, which, upon the payment of a $20 fee, will make an online applicant a “pastafarian minister.” Then there is Dudeism [], also referred to the Church of the Latter Day Dude, which portends to be a religious philosophy based on the protagonist in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski. One can be ordained online for free and be authorized to perform weddings as a Dudeist Priest.

Justice Cooper did not need to determine what is a “real” religion and what is not. Given the finding that the general rule of comity was fully applicable to this case and that the parties’ purported marriage was invalid because it was “an absolute nullity” under the law of the jurisdiction where it took place, it was not of great moment whether Dr. Arbeitman was legally entitled under New York law to solemnize the marriage. All that mattered was that he was not an officer of the Civil Registry, the only officiant permitted to legally marry anybody in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Nevertheless, Justice Cooper felt it important to comment upon the interplay between D.R.L. §25 and the inexorable trend toward marriages conducted by friends or relatives of a couple who have been ordained as ministers by internet churches. The great significance of a “marriage performed and solemnized in accordance with established religious ritual and practice” may be trivialized when the wedding is conducted by the bride’s cousin who is a Dudeist Priest or the groom’s college roommate who just received his ULC ordination the day of the wedding.

For the Court, getting married is a serious decision with wide ranging and often everlasting consequences. For this reason, among others, New York requires that prospective spouses take the time and exert the effort needed to obtain a wedding license; New York even requires that there be a 24 hour period of reflection before the couple takes their vows. It is easy to understand why couples might choose a friend or relative, rather than a judge or religious figure whom they have only just met, to play an important part in a hugely personal and momentous occasion. But to be able to dispense altogether with the legal requirements imposed by the State of New York makes the process too easy and robs it of the seriousness that is warranted in view of the responsibilities and obligations that marriage entails. With fewer and fewer marriages being performed with the attendant ritual and weight of a traditional religious practice, the reason for requiring a marriage license is that much more compelling. D.R.L. §25 is an anachronism, and its time has come to be repealed or amended.

However, under principles of comity, as the parties must be found not to be legally married to one another, Justice Cooper granted Mr. Stecklow’s motion to dismiss the divorce action for failure to state a cause of action.

Moreover, as a result of the dismissal, all of Ms. Ponorovskaya’s claims for D.R.L.-based relief (maintenance, equitable distribution and counsel fees) “are foreclosed.” She remained entitled to proceed only with her claim for a constructive trust on the cooperative apartment titled in Mr. Stecklow’s name.

Comment: Despite the dismissal of the cause of action for divorce, the nullity of the marriage would not seem to foreclose relief. To the contrary, D.R.L. §§236(B)(5, 6 and 8) and 237 provide for the possibility of equitable distribution, maintenance, insurance, and counsel fees even in an action which seeks to declare the nullity of a marriage. De Lyra v. De Lyra, 141 A.D.2d 75, 525 N.Y.S.2d 899 (2nd Dept. 1989); David v. Pillai, 303 A.D.2d 708, 757 N.Y.S.2d 326 (2nd Dept. 2003).

Moreover, it might be noted that principles of estoppel-by-tax return and comity might be applied one way where the dispute is between the parties to the ceremony, themselves, as with this divorce action, and differently where the dispute was not with the spouse, but his or her heirs, as in Tran and Farraj.

Ms. Ponorovskaya was represented by Kenneth Warner, Esq., of Manhattan. Mr. Stecklow was represented by Patricia Fersch, Esq., of Manhattan.