Family Law - Marriage Requirements - New York Supreme Court Holds Statutory Exception to Marriage License Requirement Generally Inapplicable to Out-of-State Marriages

Harvard Law Review, April 2015 | Go to article overview

Family Law - Marriage Requirements - New York Supreme Court Holds Statutory Exception to Marriage License Requirement Generally Inapplicable to Out-of-State Marriages


FAMILY LAW--MARRIAGE REQUIREMENTS--NEW YORK SUPREME COURT HOLDS STATUTORY EXCEPTION TO MARRIAGE LICENSE REQUIREMENT GENERALLY INAPPLICABLE TO OUT-OF-STATE MARRIAGES.--Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, 987 N.Y.S.2d 543 (Sup. Ct. 2014).

Section 25 of New York's Domestic Relations Law (DRL) provides that, notwithstanding another section's mandate that all couples obtain a marriage license before they may be lawfully married, no marriage will be "render[ed] void by reason of a failure to procure a marriage license" if it otherwise complies with New York's requirements. (1) One of these requirements is that a marriage must be properly solemnized to be valid, and under section 11 of the DRL only certain individuals may solemnize marriages. (2) Recently, in Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, (3) a New York trial court held that section 25 can validate an out-of-state marriage that is otherwise invalid under the laws of the jurisdiction where it took place only in "extraordinary circumstances." (4) The court reasoned that section 25, enacted when citizens understood traditional religious marriage ceremonies to create legal marriages apart from any government requirements, is outdated in light of society's shift toward nontraditional ceremonies and civil marriages. (5) Because its holding as to section 25 was dispositive, the court had no need to determine whether the marriage, which was solemnized by a minister ordained online through the nontheistic Universal Life Church (ULC), (6) was valid under section 11; however, similarly taking into account society's contemporary understanding of marriage in analyzing section 11 supports an interpretation that authorizes ULC ministers to solemnize marriages.

In 2010, New York residents Anya Ponorovskaya and Wylie Stecklow held their marriage ceremony at a resort in Mexico. (7) Stecklow's cousin, a ULC-ordained minister, officiated. (8) Though the resort supplied them with information on local marriage requirements, Ponorovskaya and Stecklow indicated to the resort that their ceremony would be purely symbolic and went on to "ignore[] each and every step" of the required process. (9) Upon returning to New York, they neglected to obtain a New York marriage license. (10)

In 2013, Ponorovskaya commenced an action for divorce, seeking financial relief, and Stecklow filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that the marriage was never legal. (11) At oral argument, Ponorovskaya conceded the marriage's invalidity in Mexico but construed section 25 as waiving their obligation to obtain a marriage license or "compl[y] in any respect" with Mexican law, thereby validating the marriage in New York as long as it complied with the DRL's requirements. (12) Stecklow contended that section 25 did not apply to marriages performed outside of New York and that comity dictated that New York recognize only marriages that are valid where they are performed, thus foreclosing New York's recognition of the marriage. Even if section 25 did apply, he argued, his ULC-ordained cousin had no authority under the DRL to solemnize the marriage, rendering the marriage invalid under New York law as well. (13)

The court granted the motion to dismiss, finding the marriage to be invalid. (14) Justice Cooper began with a comity analysis, holding that because a marriage's validity "is determined by the laws of the state or country in which it was performed," (15) this marriage, "an absolute nullity" under Mexican law, was presumptively invalid in New York. (16) Though Ponorovskaya urged accordance with the decision in In re Farraj, (17) in which a New York appellate court applied section 25 to affirm the validity of an otherwise invalid out-of-state marriage,18 Justice Cooper distinguished Farraj on the grounds that Ponorovskaya and Stecklow were under no religious obligation to hold their ceremony outside New York,19 did not sign any formal certificate or record, (20) and could not have had a "justified expectation" that their informal, "pseudo-Jewish" ceremony yielded a legal marriage. …

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