Just about anyone can become an “ordained” wedding officiant these days. For example, the Universal Life Church Monastery offers free online ordination and boasts over 20 million ministers ordained worldwide. If you’re thinking about having a newly-ordained friend perform your marriage, you may want to think about the potential consequences down the road.
A recent New York Appellate Court decision highlights some of the potential problems. In Oswald v. Oswald a “husband” sought to have his marriage declared invalid. He claimed that it was void because the officiant was “ordained” by the UniversalLifeChurch and therefore lacked authority under the Domestic Relations Law to solemnize a marriage.
The couple was married by a minister of the UniversalLifeChurch in WashingtonCounty. Three days prior to their marriage, the parties signed an antenuptial agreement that was to take effect “only upon the solemnization of the marriage.” Five years after the marriage, husband commenced legal action seeking a declaration from the court that the marriage was void from its inception and as a result, the antenuptial agreement was thus unenforceable. The husband claimed that the officiant lacked authority under the Domestic Relations Law to solemnize the marriage. Alternatively, the husband sought a divorce, enforcement of the antenuptial agreement, and equitable distribution of the assets. The wife denied that the marriage was invalid and asserted a counterclaim for divorce.
When determining whether a marriage is to be considered valid or null and void, a court must inquire as to (1) whether the officiant of the marriage is authorized by its religious organization to preside over and direct its spiritual affairs, and (2) whether the religious organization is a “church” within the meaning of the Religious Corporations Law.
Domestic Relations Law §11 provides that “no marriage shall be valid” unless it is solemnized by, among others, “a clergy member or minister of any religion” Pursuant to the Religious Corporations Law, the terms clergy member and minister include “a person having authority…from the church or synagogue to preside over and direct the spiritual affairs of the church or synagogue.”
The appellate court refused to invalidate the marriage without further proceedings from the trial court. It directed the trial court to determine (1) whether the officiant was authorized by the Universal Life Church to preside over and direct its spiritual affairs, and (2) whether the UniversalLifeChurch is a “church” within the meaning of the statute.