Online Ordinations, Are they Legal on Long Island?
Are friends and family members with online ordinations legally able to perform marriage ceremonies on Long Island?
The short answer is no. Even though the state will issue a Certificate of Marriage, the marriage can be later questioned in a court of law and can be deemed invalid with a ULC or online officiant. But do not take my word for it. This article is documented with information that you can research.
On May 15th, 2017 a bill was put before the State Legislature in Albany to make it legal for online officiants to purchase a single event license for $75. that would make the marriage they perform valid. See article
The bill did not pass and the permits are not being issued by our local Town Halls.
In 2017, the Towns of Smithtown and Islip limited their officiants list to only those with Civil Authority. This is because of the liability issues created by recommending someone to perform a service that may or may not be legal. Smithtown and Islip now only give information for sitting Judges, acting Mayors and Clerks currently in office. There is no Statewide licensing for officiants in NY, so this was their only course of action to protect themselves. A claim of a statewide license is often a red flag that an officiant may be ordained online.
Some of the catering halls that we work for have been asked by their lawyers to keep our credentials on file. This is because of the liability issues created if their recommended of officiant did not meet New York State’s requirements. When you call Town Hall and ask if online officiants are legal, all they say is “This is a question to ask your lawyer.” Some will go as far as to say that the license will be processed, because there is no registration required. However, having a Certificate of Marriage does not necessarily mean that the marriage cannot be contested and potentially declared invalid at a later date. The question you really want to ask the Clerk is “If we are married by someone who is ordained online, could the validity of the marriage later be questioned in a court of law?” The answer is yes. My advice is, if you really want your friend to get ordained online to perform your ceremony, just get legally married at town hall first. Then do whatever you want for the public ceremony. There are many samples here on my site that you are welcome to use. If you want to be legally married in front of family and friends, then hire someone who is legal to marry you. If you have been married by someone ordained online, go down to Town Hall and get legally married.
Here on Long Island the Online Ordinations have been very popular, among “professionals” and non-professionals alike. DJ’s, banquet managers, receptionists, even some long time officiants may not actually have the authority to marry in New York State. So, even if it is a recommendation from your catering hall, always check credentials. It you look up who their authority came from… and it says “How to Become A Wedding Officiant” odds are good they are in a grey area of legitimacy. Remember, this is the person you are trusting with your mother’s maiden name and your social security number when you hand them the marriage license.
2014 is the most recent court case involving a ULC Officiant, where a New York County Trial Judge stated in in his ruling that “Marriages performed by ULC ministers in New York State are potentially invalid or at the very least in jeopardy”. – Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, 2014 NY Slip Op 24140 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2014). Another case, currently in the court system, that could change the existing laws that put couples in a grey area is Oswald v. Oswald, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 02811 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013)
A wedding is a once in a lifetime event to celebrate a lifetime of marriage. There should be no reason to wonder if you are actually married or not… Making good choices from the beginning is a far better decision than wondering what to do after the fact. Does “click here and you’re in business” sound too good to be true? Well odds are it is. Does it say on the ordination web site that you can perform weddings anywhere and everywhere? Of course it does! But that’s like asking Philip Morris if cigarettes cause cancer. Remember also that the personal integrity of the person you choose as your officiant is important. Again, when you hand them the marriage license, you are also handing them your Social Security Number and Mother’s maiden name.
Another reason that online ordinations are particularly frowned upon is that there is no identification process. The ULC requirement is that you are over the age of 13 in order to become a minister. As an example I had Sebastian Basset ordained in 2015.
Not only is he a real Basset Hound, but he also passed away in 2008.
When the Federal Government granted Church of Ancient Ways full church status in 1997, I wrote my bylaws to mirror New York State law, to ensure that my people would always be in compliance. In 2006, the City of New York decided to forgo the congregational requirement that still stands in the rest of the state. So they do register online officiants and it is legal for those officiants to perform ceremonies that take place only within the City of New York. Officiants registered with NYC prior to 2006 had their credentials checked using New York State Law and can marry people anywhere in New York State.
Nassau and Suffolk do not require registration and do not check credentials when processing a license. Honestly, you could fill it out at the kitchen table yourselves, using the names of your favorite TV characters, and Town Hall would still process it. Unfortunately having a Certificate of Marriage from the state, doesn’t mean that you are legally married. How on earth can this be? I for one have no idea. But this is the reality of the current situation.
The problem would be if one of you wanted no longer to be married, and to disenfranchise the other by having the marriage declared invalid because the officiant did not meet the state’s requirements. In the cases where this has happened, Ravenal v. Ravenal and Raniere v. Raniere for example, the marriages were declared null and void. That equated to no equitable distribution of assets… So if you are unsure about being married, having a friend ordained online might be even better than a prenuptial agreement. Or at least for one of you.
The ruling of null and void also opens the door to other liability. Things like health care benefits that were paid but not due, taxes that were filed jointly without legal right, all come into question. It becomes a mess. On top of all that, after the current case is finally through the Supreme Court, if the ruling is not retroactive, everyone married prior to the ruling will still be in this grey area.
I had a couple come last fall with a second license for me to sign, so there would be no question as to the validity of their marriage. He had cancer and his children didn’t like the wife. He had no doubt that as soon as he passed, they would contest the will and try to have the marriage declared invalid because a friend, ULC ordained, married them. Although I was able to help them, their situation still saddens me to this day.
With all that said, my advice is, if you really want your friend to get ordained online to perform your ceremony, just get legally married at town hall first. If you want to be legally married in front of family and friends, hire someone who is legal to marry you. If you have been married by someone ordained online, go down to Town Hall and get legally married.
For more cases and information from other states see Wikipedia.
For more New York State Laws and cases there is a New York Times Article that notes cases and problems that are still ongoing.