Every now and again, I receive an inquiry from a couple looking for help with a situation that doesn’t fit the “norm.” Sometimes it’s a couple in their late 60’s who love each other and want to be married in the eyes of their friends and families, but not in the eyes of New York State for tax reasons. Other times, it’s a couple who wants to be married legally—for purposes of finances or legal status—but are holding off on the public ceremony. I’m always glad to help, but only if I’m legally able. As a clergy person, I’m also an Agent of the State, and have to make sure I act accordingly as to not break any laws, or inadvertently cause a couple to be in a problem situation. So let’s look at what clergy in New York State are able—and not able—to do for couples:

Legally binding weddings without the religious ceremony

This is a pretty simple situation, and there’s many reasons for it. I’ve worked with a number of couples who have already been legally married before even meeting with me the first time. They might have done so for immigration purposes, green cards, financing on a house… and there’s nothing wrong with this. When a couple legally marries, they are basically forming a contractual relationship which has loads of case law behind it which grants the couple a number of benefits.

For younger couples, getting legally married ahead of the religious ceremony can make a lot of sense, especially if buying a first home, co-signing a lease, or if they have assets that warrant a legally married relationship. In any case, if a couple tells me they are legally married ahead of a religious wedding, I insist on seeing a copy of the Marriage License. This is because having a religious ceremony ahead of the legal one is a very different thing.

Religious ceremonies without the Marriage License: Good idea or very bad idea?

Once a couple is legally married, the State really doesn’t care that much what a couple does with regard to religious rites or ceremonies. But should a religious rite or ceremony be performed before a couple is legally married—that presents a challenge. Why would a couple want to be religiously wed before—or if ever—becoming legally married? Sometimes as mentioned it is due to tax reasons. I actually worked with a couple where one partner was immigrating to the United States, but didn’t get their fiancée visa in time for the wedding and the couple still had 100 guests coming to the scheduled ceremony. Whatever the desire, in the eyes of the State of New York, if you are religiously married, you are automatically legally married—even without the license!

The Honorable Richard Dollinger wrote for the Buffalo Law Journal about this issue. He talks about how, prior to 1909, many New Yorkers didn’t have marriage licenses. So in an effort to register all future married couples, New York created a precedent that any religiously solemnized wedding would count as a legal one.

Dollinger summarizes the net effect of this move:

In short, a legislative-created conundrum exists: On one hand, you need a license. But on the other hand, if you fail to get one, you can still be married if you follow the other directions in the Domestic Relations Law. However, without a license, the proof of the “marriage” can, as a stream of cases attest, be easily challenged when marital or estate rights to property or support are at stake.

Thus, whenever I’m asked if I can perform a religious wedding ceremony without it being a legal one, I have the unfortunate duty to let couples know that neither I, nor any religious clergy member, conduct such a ceremony.

I’ve been in one curious situation in which a couple had a party planned, a date set for the ceremony, but due to circumstances way beyond their control, they could not get legally married on the date in question. They still wanted the religious ceremony, and so I had to create something that could never be confused for a wedding. We still celebrated together and held a ceremony, but it was made clear to everyone present, both in the form and substance of the ceremony as well as in the eyes of the State, that no true marriage rites were performed.

Should you have any questions like these or others that surround how weddings affect the status of your relationship, first contact a matrimonial attorney, but then also feel free to contact me!