Getting married is usually a straightforward matter. You obtain a marriage license, have a ceremony officiated by a religious leader, judge or other qualified person and you’re done. However, some couples do not follow all the steps. For example, they may have a ceremony but neglect to get a license. Are they legally married if they don’t have a marriage license?
New York requires a marriage license. However, the state acknowledges that some individuals may not realize they need one or marry in a different jurisdiction and, thus, neglect to obtain a license in New York. As a result, New York will recognize the validity of the marriage – even if you don’t have a marriage license – provided two requirements are met. First, there must have been a ceremony officiated by someone qualified to marry people under New York law. Second, in the ceremony, the individuals must promise to take each other in marriage as spouses.
The exchange of vows is key because it is that promise that creates a marriage contract between two people. For example, in a divorce case we handled, one party argued there was no valid marriage because there were no reciprocal promises during the ceremony. In addition, there was other evidence to show that the parties did not act as a married couple during their time together. While they had a child, they lived separately and kept their finances separate. Significantly, they filed tax returns as single unmarried filers; not married, filing separately. Although not determinative, how tax returns were filed is relevant because the law says that a party cannot take a position contrary to what he or she stated on a tax return.
The takeaway for couples is to be sure you want to be married and, if you do, secure a marriage license. If you don’t want to be married but want a ceremony to commemorate your relationship, be sure that you do not exchange vows or anything that remotely resembles marriage vows. Marriage provides certain important legal rights both during marriage and afterward if you divorce or your spouse dies. New York courts will err on the side of a valid marriage – particularly if there are children born to the marriage. To be clear, no one should want the issue of the validity of their marriage to be determined by a judge.
Marriage is a major decision in your life that should not be taken lightly. Many jurisdictions, including New York, require a waiting period before a valid wedding ceremony can take place to ensure the parties thereto have contemplated the seriousness of marriage and what it represents. While romantic in nature, legally speaking, marriage means that each party thereto takes legal and financial responsibility for the other which is why divorce can be a lengthy process.
If you need assistance with a divorce or drafting a premarital or cohabitation agreement, please contact us for a consultation.