23 Misc.3d 1109(A), 886 N.Y.S.2d 67 (N.Y.Sur.,2009), aff’d

The parties married on May 2, 2003 and executed an Islamic Marriage Contract.  The husband resided in the State of New York and the wife resided in the State of New Jersey.  The husband traveled from New York to the wife’s family home in New Jersey to participate in the marriage ceremony.  An Imam from New York solemnized the marriage before two witnesses.  The parties thereafter lived as husband and wife in the State of New York.  They did not obtain a marriage license prior to solemnizing their marriage.

The husband was previously married and has five (5) adult children.  On July 14, 2007, the husband died intestate.  The husband’s son was issued the estate’s Letter’s of Administration and the wife petitioned the court for an accounting of her late husband’s estate. The husband’s son challenged this accounting on the grounds that she was never legally married to his father.

Whether a marriage is valid where the marriage ceremony was performed in State A and the matrimonial domicile was State B.

The Surrogate Court held that New York law applies and therefore, the marriage is valid. The entire case turned on whether New York or New Jersey law governed to determine the validity of the marriage contract.  Under New York law, failure to obtain a marriage license before marriage causes the marriage to be a voidable contract. However, if the deficiency is cured, the marriage is valid.  Moreover, if the marriage is solemnized, the marriage is valid even without a marriage license.  On the other hand, New Jersey law provides that absence of a marriage contract creates a void marriage.

The court considered the relevant Restatement of Conflict of Law to determine the applicable law.  The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Law provides important factors to consider for purposes of determining marital status: (1) the protection of justified expectation; (2) the relevant policies of the forum state and (3) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of a particular issue.  The court noted that “the interest of the parties, the forum state and contracting state must be weighed” against one another. “The marriage should not be held invalid in such a case unless the intensity of the interest of the state where their marriage was contracted in having its invalidating rule applied outweighs the policy of protecting the expectation of the parties by upholding the marriage and the interest of the other state with the validating rule in having this rule applied.”  Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Law, §283(1).

The court held that several events surrounding the marriage ceremony gave petitioner and decedent a justified expectation that their marriage would be valid.  First, the parties intended to be married, took part in a religious ceremony and executed a Certificate of Marriage issued by the Mosque.  In signing the Certificate of Marriage, they agreed to be united in marriage by their own free will. Second, the husband and the Imam that solemnized the marriage traveled from New York to New Jersey in order to abide by cultural customs and not to evade the applicability of matrimonial law.  Third, New York was the matrimonial domicile for the entire marriage and the parties expected that their marriage would be upheld in New York.

The court also held that New York had a significant relationship with the decedent, the petitioner and their marriage because New York was their marital domicile.  New York has a strong public policy interest in validating marriage of its domicile to protect their individual rights.  This is especially the case where a marriage ceremony takes place and the parties hold themselves out to the public as husband and wife and are believed to be reasonably married.  The New York Legislature has allowed a marriage to be valid if solemnized even without a marriage license because the harm of denying the benefits of a valid marriage outweighs the administrative ease of requiring a marriage license.  A public wedding ceremony, the executed document eliminates the problems of a common law marriage.

While New Jersey has a substantial interest in enforcing its formal marriage requirements as the marriage was entered into in New Jersey, the court noted that this fact alone is insufficient to warrant application of New Jersey Law. Specifically, the court, in quoting another precedent, stated that “the state where the marriage was contracted does not necessarily have the most significant relationship to the spouses and the marriage even at the time the marriage was contracted.”  The court found that the New Jersey Legislature’s concern in abolishing common law marriages and preventing possible manipulation by requiring a blood test is absent here. Here, the parties were married in a formal public ceremony and the marriage was not formed merely by cohabitation.  There was no threat that the parties would claim that they had a common law marriage established in New Jersey because the parties resided in New York immediately after the marriage ceremony and New York was the matrimonial domicile.  The parties did not intend for New Jersey to be their domicile when they were married.  Therefore, New Jersey’s interest is minimal.

Since New York has the most significant relationship with the parties and the marriage, the laws of New York govern the validity of the marriage.  The court found the marriage to be valid and distributed the Estate according to New York intestacy laws.