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Is a New York marriage valid without a certificate?

A marriage ceremony can be a moving, spiritual experience both for the couple receiving their nuptials and the guests. But from a legal perspective, a marriage is not official until the couple signs a marriage certificate.

At least, that is true in most states. In New York, a religious ceremony may technically validate a marriage — even if the couple never properly filled out a marriage certificate.

As New York Law Journal explains, a 1907 state law reads in part, “nothing in this article … shall be construed to render void [any marriage] by … failure to procure a marriage license.” However, that law may be on the way out, after a judge recently ruled that a couple’s participation in a religious ceremony in 2004 did not mean they were legally married.

The couple first met in 2003. The following year, a rabbi “married” them in his office in a brief ceremony. At some point later, the woman filed for divorce. In response, the man asked the court to dismiss the divorce claim, on the theory that the two of them were never legally married.

The Supreme Court justice agreed. Though he found that the ceremony in question was sufficient under a related statute, the justice wrote that the “circumstances” of the case indicated that the parties were not serious about getting married. He noted that the ceremony did not involve any of the common features of a Jewish wedding, such as a canopy known as a “chuppah” or the breaking of a glass.

In fact, the justice wrote, the ceremony took place while the couple was meeting with the rabbi about an apartment. It appears that the woman was still married to another man when it took place; she referred to the man as her roommate in a deposition related to her divorce from her third husband. She also listed herself as single in tax returns. Thus, the justice concluded, he could not regard the marriage as valid, even though it arguably fulfills the requirements of the 1907 statute.