A couple without a marriage license who purportedly solemnized their union with a “pseudo-Jewish” ceremony conducted by an Internet-ordained minister at a Mexican beach resort are not legally married, a judge has ruled.
And if there was no marriage there can be no divorce, concluded Manhattan Justice Matthew Cooper (See Profile), in dismissing the woman’s action and foreclosing equitable distribution and maintenance.
When clothing designer and businesswoman Anya Ponorovskaya sued attorney Wylie Stecklow for divorce, she insisted their February 2010 beach ceremony fell in the ambit of Domestic Relations Law §25, which says marriages are valid, even without a license, if they are sufficiently solemnized.
In a May 29 decision, Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, 313131/2013, Cooper said he was not persuaded. He called the 107-year-old law “an anachronism, and its time has come to be repealed or amended.”
The judge said the law “would undoubtedly come as a surprise to all those couples who patiently wait on the long lines at the Marriage License Bureau at the Office of the City Clerk in lower Manhattan to learn that, despite the instructions they were given, a marriage license is not really a requirement for marrying after all.”
Cooper granted Stecklow’s motion to dismiss the divorce action. But he also said Ponorovskaya was entitled to proceed with a claim for a constructive trust on the cooperative apartment that the couple lived in under Stecklow’s name.
Ponorovskaya and Stecklow began their relationship in 2004. Five years later, Stecklow proposed to Ponorovskaya overlooking Mayan ruins in Tulum and subsequently planned a destination wedding at the Dreams Tulum Resort and Spa.
Leading up to the ceremony, the couple filled out a questionnaire from the resort asking the type of food served and whether the ceremony would be either “civil” or “religious/symbolic.” The words “civil” and “religious” were crossed out and “symbolic” was written in capital letters. The resort submitted information saying a legal marriage there required a judge to perform the ceremony.
Ponorovskaya said she never saw the resort’s materials and said she was only involved in matters such as food and attendees’ dress code, while Stecklow dealt with the major decisions.
The February 2010 ceremony at the resort’s beach had some trappings of a traditional Jewish wedding: a chuppah, specific prayers recited and vows exchanged and a glass-breaking ritual.
But there was no Jewish wedding contract, and the officiant was not a rabbi, but Stecklow’s cousin, a dentist who became a minister through the Universal Life Church—”a distinction easily achieved by paying a fee on the ULC website,” Cooper said.
During the ceremony, the dentist told the audience he was “an ordained minister—this will be a legal union.” But the judge observed that the ceremony did not comply with Mexican law for a legally valid wedding.
The pair later started the process of applying for a New York marriage license but “for reasons that are unclear” never completed the application.
Still, Ponorovskaya insisted the pair held themselves out as husband and wife.
For example, she noted Stecklow represented Ponorovskaya in a New York City Civil Court proceeding and said “this is my wife” when asked by the judge to explain his relationship to Ponorovskaya. And in a contract for the purchase of an apartment, Stecklow said Ponorovskaya was his wife.
Stecklow acknowledged the two would sometimes call each other “husband” and “wife” but said they knew they were not legally married. Moreover, he filed his tax returns as single and she filed hers a “head of household” for herself and a son from a previous relationship.
Ponorovskaya commenced the divorce action in November 2013.
Stecklow said that because the marriage was not valid under Mexican law, under the principles of comity, it was not valid in New York, either.
Cooper agreed the marriage was “likewise invalid under New York law.”
Ponorovskaya pointed to a 2010 Appellate Division, Second Department, ruling, Matter of Farraj, 72 AD3d 1082. In that case, a Brooklyn couple had an Islamic ceremony at a New Jersey relative’s residence, but they never obtained a New York or New Jersey marriage license.
A Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court ruling deemed the marriage valid and permitted the wife to inherit. The Second Department affirmed.
But the couple in the Farraj case had formal religious documents memorializing the wedding. Stecklow and Ponorovskaya only had a video of the ceremony.
It could not be said either side “jointly or justifiably had an expectation that they were legally married as a result of the Mexican ceremony,” Cooper said.
He later added that Ponorovskaya “may indeed have had some gauzy notion that she and defendant were husband and wife.” But any evidence to that end was “trumped” by the parties’ tax returns.
Cooper said DRL §25 was enacted “when traditional religious practices continued to hold sway and governmental regulation of marriage was still relatively new.”
The law’s basic rationale “to protect the sanctity of traditional, formal religious marriages from the threat of government imposed legal requirements” was “no longer relevant,” Cooper said.
Patricia Fersch of Fersch Petitti represented Stecklow up through oral arguments and was replaced by David A Thompson of Stecklow Cohen & Thompson.
Stecklow said in a statement that he was “pleased with Judge Cooper’s thoughtful and well-reasoned decision. I feel it is well based in the law and with knowledge of the facts of the case.”
Ponorovskaya was represented by Kenneth E. Warner and Rita Warner of Warner Partners.
“The case is legally interesting and equitably compelling because our client believed she was validly married and defendant benefited from that. She’s entitled to relief, and we’re considering our options” Rita Warner said.