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Some people who think they’re legally married really aren’t


These days, a growing number of couples are opting out of traditional church weddings and are choosing instead to be married in less formal ceremonies, often presided over by a friend or relative rather than a priest or rabbi.

That’s fine if that’s what the couple wants – but the problem is that some such weddings might not be technically legal.

Typically, a valid marriage requires a license, witnesses, and solemnization by someone with the legal authority to do so. “Legal authority” is the problem. In many states, this means either a justice of the peace or a person who has been ordained by a recognized religion.

Many people believe that they can perform weddings if they’ve been ordained by the Universal Life Church, an Internet “religion” that has no particular belief system but that allows people to fill out an online form and quickly become “ordained.” The ULC’s website proudly touts that its “ministers” can perform weddings. But just because something appears on a website doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.

For instance, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that someone who was “ordained” by the ULC is not a real minister and doesn’t have any legal authority to perform a valid wedding. Courts and legislatures in a number of other states have also rejected “marriages” solemnized by someone with an online or mail-order ordination, including New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Utah.

If a person who doesn’t have a valid legal marriage ever decides to get divorced, they might find that they’re not protected by the divorce laws. They might have no more rights than someone who merely cohabited with another person for many years.

Another problem is that if they signed a prenuptial agreement, it might be worthless if it wasn’t followed up with a legally binding “nuptial.” Prenups are signed in contemplation of marriage, and they’re usually meaningless if there isn’t a marriage. In one case, an appeals court in New York ruled that a prenuptial agreement was legally unenforceable because the subsequent “nuptials” were performed by a ULC minister.

People who aren’t technically married could face all sorts of other problems. They might not be able to inherit property from a spouse – especially if the spouse died without a will – or to share in a deceased spouse’s pension or 401(k). They might not have the right to own real estate as “tenants by the entireties” and thus protect themselves from creditors. They might not be able to sue and recover damages if their spouse is injured or killed. And they could face dire problems with income, gift and estate taxes.

One of the most interesting cases involved a man who was actually saved by having a “defective” marriage. James Lynch was charged with bigamy, but managed to escape punishment by claiming that his first marriage wasn’t “real” since it was performed by a ULC minister. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed that the first marriage was invalid, and threw out the charges against him.


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