Validity of a Universal Life Church Marriage and Prenuptial Agreement

In New York, an antenuptial agreement that goes into effect once the parties are married may be valid even if the minister that solemnized the marriage received his authority from an unconventional religion. In Oswald v. Oswald, the court considered the effect of a antenuptial or prenuptial agreement after a marriage ceremony performed by a Universal Life Church minister. The parties had executed the agreement three days before the ceremony, but its terms only took effect after the “solemnization of the marriage.”

The plaintiff sued five years after the marriage asking the court to declare the marriage void from the beginning and the antenuptial agreement unenforceable because the person performing the ceremony did not have legal authority to solemnize the marriage. Alternatively, he wanted a divorce. The defendant responded by denying the marriage was invalid and counterclaiming for a divorce. The parties both moved for summary judgment.

The lower court granted the plaintiff’s motion. The defendant appealed, arguing that the plaintiff should not be allowed to argue the marriage was void because he represented otherwise on their joint tax returns. The court agreed that a litigant could be prevented from taking a position contrary to the position taken for purposes of filing taxes. However, it explained that a marriage that is void couldn’t be retroactively validated because the party held themselves out as being married.

The appellate court determined that the lower court rightly found that the plaintiff could challenge the validity of the marriage. It reasoned that the plaintiff bore the burden of submitting competent evidence to show the absence of all material factual issues. Under Domestic Relations Law § 11, no marriage is valid unless it’s solemnized by a minister or clergy member of any religion. These are people that have authority from the church or synagogue to preside over its spiritual affairs. The issue in this case was whether the UCL had authorized the officiant to preside over its spiritual affairs and whether the ULC counted as a church under the statute’s meaning.

The plaintiff’s evidence had included the officiant’s Credentials of Ministry, which established that he was an ordained minister with the ULC. The website documents gave those ordained as ministers with ULC were authorized to perform weddings among other important religious services. The plaintiff hadn’t presented evidence to the contrary, but argued that ULC used an unconventional method to choose its ministers. The court reasoned that it could only determine whether the ULC stuck to its own rules in selecting the officiant as a minister, but couldn’t question its membership requirements or how it chose ministers.

The plaintiff argued that the ULC didn’t count as a church because it didn’t have a stated place of worship. The defendant responded by submitting an affidavit from the ULC president stating that it had numerous places of worship throughout the state. The court found this raised enough factual issues to prevent summary judgment.

The plaintiff also argued that the ULC did not profess a belief that distinguished its church as a religion, but the court found there was no basis to conclude it wasn’t a church under the Religious Corporations Law. The court explained ULC conducted itself in some respects like more conventional churches and followed many of the same values as other religions. Furthermore, it ordained ministers, and though they weren’t required to preside over a specific congregation within a physical church it encouraged that practice. Accordingly, the appellate court found that the plaintiff had failed to establish the person who performed the ceremony didn’t have authority to solemnize the marriage. The appellate court reversed the summary judgment.

If you are trying to enforce a marital agreement during divorce in New York, contact the Law and Mediation Office of Darren M. Shapiro at 516-333-6555 or via our online form. Our principal Darren Shapiro is an experienced, compassionate family law attorney and mediator.

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