In a recent New York surrogate court case, a battle was initiated over competing claims to administer an estate. The decedent, who was from an Orthodox Jewish family, died without a will. His daughter, acting on behalf of his mother, asserted that he was unmarried, while another person did claim to be his wife. Each person was claiming to be the sole distributee of his estate, and each filed a competing petition for administration. Of course, determining whether he was married or not would clarify whether his alleged wife or mother would inherit his estate.
Apparently, four years before his death, he become romantically interested in the alleged wife and sought an Islamic marriage. He converted to Islam and then participated in a religious ceremony in 2008, four years before his death. However, the parties did not take out a license with any civil city or town clerk, nor did he inform his family of the marriage ceremony until approximately four years later, when he informed his sister. At that time, the relationship between the parties was in trouble, and his attorney drafted, but never filed, a divorce petition.
It is certainly questionable whether a divorce could have been obtained if the couple was not legally married. In any event, both parties filed in family court for orders of protection against each other. Several months before the “husband” died, the couple said they wanted to reconcile and withdrew their petitions, and within six months, the “husband” was hospitalized and subsequently died.
The decedent’s mother claimed that the ceremony was invalid as a matter of Islamic Law. However, the court ruled that the matter of a religious doctrine may not be determined by a civil court, and it also refused to grant summary judgment to the alleged wife.
Basically, the court ruled that the marriage would be valid if conducted in accord with the requirements of the New York domestic relations law, including the requirement of a clergy to perform a ceremony with at least one other witness and the attestation of both parties that they intended to and took each other as husband and wife.
Basically, because neither party in the contest could conclusively prove any evidence, the court remanded the matter to a further court for further discovery and trial as to whether they were in fact married or not. Only time will tell as to how the court determines the marital status of this person as of his date of death. Certainly, if an individual wants to be legally married, he or she should take all necessary steps to have the ceremony performed both religiously, if desired, as well as civilly, with the recording of a proper marriage license.
Hyman G. Darling, Esq.
Image credit: Ray Dumas under Creative Commons license