Usually, divorce actions involve financial matters, such as dividing property, and whether, how much, and for how long one spouse will pay money to the other. But occasionally, the issue is more complicated.
That was the situation for Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper, who heard the case of Devorah H. vs. Steven S. Devorah was filing for divorce and seeking alimony. However, Steven was denying the marriage was even valid, and arguing that, therefore, he shouldn’t have to pay.
The judge agreed that if the couple had never legally wed, payment could not be claimed.
“It is axiomatic that only parties who are married can divorce each other,” the judge noted. “Moreover, the … relief plaintiff seeks … in the divorce proceeding — equitable distribution of property and the payment … of spousal maintenance — can be granted only if the parties are legally recognized spouses.”
Judge Cooper had to consider the following in determining whether the parties were legally married.
The couple never got one; but this fact was not fatal to Devorah H.’s case. A New York statute about domestic relations states that a marriage is valid “in the absence of a marriage license if it was properly solemnized.”
Devorah, relying on that statute, argued that even without the license, “she and defendant are legally married because they participated in a … wedding ceremony.”
Steven, however, countered that the ceremony was not a real one, and therefore, they couldn’t actually be considered spouses.
We tend to think of wedding ceremonies as lavish affairs attended by hundreds of family and friends. It is true, though, that many brides and grooms decide an understated city hall proceeding is more their style — and it’s just as legal.
In the case of Devorah and Steven, though, they were married in a rabbi’s office without any family or friends present.
“[The ceremony, in a rabbi’s office] lasted … minutes, and the only people there, other than the parties and the rabbi, were two unidentified … men who were recruited on the spot to be witnesses,” the judge noted.
There were no photos taken or video of the ceremony recorded, and Judge Cooper found that the only document presented by the couple as proof that a marriage had occurred “was incomplete and unsigned.”
Despite the simplicity of the wedding, the court found that it met the basic requirements of New York State law; however, the judge noted that while “the parties participated in a wedding ceremony conducted in accordance with the requirements of [the domestic relations statute] does not necessarily lead, however, to the conclusion that the parties are married. [I]t is necessary to consider the circumstances surrounding the ceremony, specifically, what brought the parties to appear in the rabbi’s office … and what transpired in the days, months and years that followed.”
The judge noted that it was important to consider the circumstances of what brought the couple to the rabbi’s office. The two had actually gone to the rabbi’s office for his help in finding a larger apartment.
Once there, though, “the rabbi decided ‘on the spot’ that they should be married … [T]he rabbi … felt compelled to act swiftly because the parties were about to move into an apartment he had helped them obtain,” the court noted.
“I … wanted to … assure they are living together in a manner with the blessing of Jewish law,” he said. Otherwise, he explained, he would be contributing to a situation where Devorah’s children would be “exposed to living with a man in the house without matrimony.”
The judge also took into account that Devorah, now claiming to be married, was receiving public assistance benefits listed as an unmarried mother of dependent children, [and] filing her tax returns as “single” rather than “married.”
The judge said he was concerned about how swiftly the couple agreed to a wedding.
According to the domestic relations statute, a marriage ceremony can’t be performed within 24 hours after the issuance of the license.
“By requiring couples to wait a full day to marry after they receive their marriage license, the statute reflects the value we as a state place on providing people with a window for reflection before proceeding to marriage,” said the judge.
Ultimately, the court decided that Devorah H. could not show that she and Steven S. were married.
New York City and Long Island-based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabi
Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.