Michael B. Schulman & Associates, P.C. have taken on a case about the Marriage Equality Act (MEA) of New York, which took effect on July 24, 2011. In this action, Michael B. Schulman & Associates represent the defendant where our position is that a same-sex marriage ceremony in New York solemnized by a Rabbi on July 21, 2005, is a valid marriage, and that the Act is intended to have retroactive effect. However, the plaintiff’s side argues that the parties’ marriage was not valid on July 21, 2005, and relies on Hernandez v. Robles (7 N.Y.3d 338) to support their position that same-sex marriages were invalid before the enactment of the MEA. However, according to New York’s Domestic Relations Law Sec. 25, a marriage is valid even in the absence of a marriage license, if it was properly solemnized.
The defendant confirms that the parties were married on July 21, 2005, as the parties were properly solemnized when they signed a ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract to be executed on the day of the wedding. During the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony, the parties both took each other’s vows under a chuppah. A chuppah is a canopy under which a couple stands for the duration of their ceremony, traditionally joined by both sets of parents and the officiating rabbi. It represents the new home that the newlyweds will build together, symbolized by the cloth covering and four poles that outline the structure.
The ceremony ended, as per Jewish custom, with the plaintiff breaking a glass by stepping on it. The reason Jews break a glass during the wedding ceremony is to remember two of the most important and tragic events of Jewish history: the destruction of the Jewish temples. In an otherwise joyous occasion, it’s a ritual that tempers that happiness and allows for a moment of reflection.
On June 23, 2011, New York enacted MEA, which recognized and acknowledged “otherwise valid marriages” and permitted same-sex couples to obtain a formal marriage license in New York. After the law went into effect on July 24, 2011, all that was required to make an “otherwise valid marriage” completely valid was to obtain a marriage license from the county clerk where the parties reside. On July 28, 2011, the parties obtained a New York State marriage license at Babylon Town Hall, whereby New York officially recognized their “otherwise valid marriage.” Therefore, it is the defendant’s position that the wording in the statute “otherwise valid” is retroactive and makes the marriage on July 21, 2005, valid for all the reasons except for the fact that the parties didn’t have a civil marriage license, which wasn’t required prior to 2011.
It is our position that if the New York Legislature meant for the MEA to be applied prospectively, the language could have been clearly stated by wording such as “this affects marriages entered into from the effective date forward,” or similar words to that. By the statute stating, “otherwise valid”, it’s clear the MEA’s purpose was to grant equality, ending any distinction in how same-sex couples were granted the benefits of marriage as compared to heterosexual couples.
In the Matter of Farraj, (72 A.D.3 1082, 2010), which was decided by the Appellate Division, Second Department in 2010 prior to the MEA’s enactment, it specifically states, “A marriage is not void for the failure to obtain a marriage license if the marriage is solemnized.” Therefore, the 2005 marriage between the plaintiff and the defendant is a valid marriage as it was solemnized by a Rabbi under Jewish law and tradition, even though the parties did not obtain a civil license until permitted to do so in 2011.
New York State Allowed “Recalculation of Tax Advantages” based on Enactment of MEA
After the enactment of the MEA, the New York State Department of Taxation allowed same-sex couples who married prior to 2011 to amend their tax returns that were filed before 2011 by changing their status to “married.” However, the defendant’s argues that if those marriages were not valid at the time, then those New York State residents could not file amended New York State income tax returns to change their status to “married.” This retroactive intent of the New York State Legislature was clearly shown by the New York State Department of Taxation ruling that people who had an “otherwise valid” marriage prior to the enactment of the MEA on July 24, 2011, could now file amended tax returns changing their status to “married.” So, if the MEA was not retroactive, this ability to amend a same-sex couple’s tax returns before July 24, 2011, would not have been allowed by the State of New York.
The New York State Legislature specifically put the words “otherwise valid” in the legislation so that all marriages which were solemnized by clergy prior to the MEA would now be recognized for all purposes under New York State Law, including the New York State Tax Law. Therefore, this shows that the plaintiff and defendant were considered legally married in the State of New York prior before 2011. The religious ceremony conducted by a Rabbi in 2005 between the plaintiff and the defendant created a valid marriage under the Domestic Relations Law. Their marriage was legal and valid, just not recognized by New York State until July 24, 2011.
The defendant has stated these arguments in court and the case is currently pending in Nassau County Supreme Court. We will update you when there is a decision.