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N.Y. Validates License-less Religious Marriages But Not N.J., Unless…

muslim-weddingProf. Howard M. Friedman, at the Religion Clause blog, has posted another very interesting case relating to New York Domestic Relations Law.

He reported on the case of Matter of Farraj, decided by the Surrogate’s Court in Kings County last week. In that case, Rabaa M. Hanash, the decedent Daoud Farraj’s wife, petitioned the court for an accounting of her husband’s estate. An adult child of the decedent, Saed Farraj, claimed that Rabaa had no standing to compel the accounting because she was not legally married to the decedent.

He claimed that this was the case because the couple did not obtain a marriage licence and were married in a Muslim ceremony in New Jersey, though they actually lived in New York. And according to New Jersey law (N.J. Stat. § 37:1-10) a marriage is absolutely void if a the couple fails to obtain a marriage license before the ceremony. He argued, therefore, that Daoud and Rabaa’s marriage was void and that consequently, Rabaa was not a spouse with standing to petition to compel an accounting in her husband’s estate.

The Surrogate held that the validity of the marriage in question is governed by New York law, and not New Jersey law, because the parties maintained their domicile in New York. Under New York law, marriages performed in religious ceremonies are recognized as valid even if no marriage license is obtained. The marriage between Radaa and Daoud was therefore valid under the governing New York law, so the court held that Radaa had standing to petition for an accounting in her husband’s estate proceeding.

I would like to consider the a slight variation on these facts though, to show that even though New Jersey law invalidates marriage ceremonies performed without a license, a New Jersey court would still validate the marriage in this case.

Normally, a New Jersey court would only have jurisdiction over an estate proceeding in the above-mentioned facts, if the parties’ primary domicile was in NJ. And if they had jurisdiction, they would have invalidated the marriage because the marriage ceremony took place without a license. But let’s say the couple had a vacation home in New Jersey and therefore had to do an ancillary probate proceeding in New Jersey to dispose of the home. In such a case, their domicile would still be in New York, but a New Jersey probate court would still have jurisdiction in the ancillary probate proceeding for the NJ vacation home.

Under those facts, if someone challenged the wife’s standing, a New Jersey court ought to agree that the couple’s marriage was valid under New York law (where the couple were domiciled) and therefore that the wife has standing as a widow of the decedent. It should further consider the couple’s marriage to be valid under New Jersey law, pursuant to the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause (Article IV, Section 1), which obligates states to recognize the “public acts, records, and judicial rulings” of other states.

Because the couple was domiciled in New York, even a NJ court would hold that the marriage was valid under New York law, and by extension, under New Jersey law as well pursuant to the “full faith and credit” clause.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held in Heur v. Heur, 704 A 2d 913, 916 (1998), that “full faith and credit need not be accorded a judgment of another jurisdiction when the court issuing the judgment lacked the jurisdictional prerequisite of domicile.” Under our facts, the couple would have met the jurisdictional prerequisite of domicile in New York, and therefore a New Jersey court considering an ancillary probate proceeding would apply New York law to determine the validity of Radaa and Daoud’s marriage. (Is it relevant that despite the couple’s domicile in New York, no New York court every officially ruled on the validity of their marriage?)

Thus, I think that were a New Jersey court to have jurisdiction over an ancilary probate proceeding under the facts, as suggested above, it would also recognize the validity of the Muslim ceremony, even without the marriage license, to give the decedent’s wife standing to petition for an accounting.

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