What happens to a marriage when the judge / reverend is found to be a fraud?

A common plot device on the sitcom, in fact I’m writing this because I just saw the device used for the umpteenth time on a Flintstones repeat.

I’m sure it doesn’t happen as often as it does in Sitcom-land, but I’m sure it does happen - someone found to be an imposter of someone who has the power to marry.

What does happen to the marriages that they performed? Are they considered invalid? How about anything else official they “did” in their line of business?

It actually happened (sort of) to friends of mine. Their minister was defrocked.

The answer they got was, as long as the marriage license was properly signed, witnessed by at least one person other than the minister and filed, it’s all legal.

What would happen with a fraudulent judge doing legal-type stuff, I have no idea.

The law does not require a minister for a marriage. It’s the marriage license that makes it official. As long as you have a valid marriage license and the proper signatures, the marriage is legal.

If the judge were fraudulent, it’s the same thing – you have the signature from the witnesses to make it legal.

I think the first sitcom to use that plot was I Love Lucy.

But what constitutes a valid marriage license, and proper signatures? This may vary by state. I was married in Maryland in 1993. We were going to be married by an Islamic imam who was based in D.C. We asked courthouse officials if the state would recognize him as legal to perform the ceremony. They said that anyone who is recognized as being able to perform a ceremony by their religion would be recognized by the state. However, they told me an anecdote about a Japanese couple who wanted to have one set of parents perform the ceremony, and they said that wouldn’t fly.

(In spite of this inquiry the imam insisted that we have a courthouse wedding prior to his religious ceremony. Maybe he had problems in the past with various jurisdictions recognizing his status.)

This doesn’t address what happens if the ceremony was found after the fact to be performed by someone who wasn’t authorized, but it does indicate that not just anybody can perform a wedding.

The law varies between states. In many states, the marriage license isn’t valid until countersigned by an officiant licensed by the state (either by a clerk of the court or the department of health).

ETA: Maryland changed its officiant law in 2005, and now anyone can marry you as long as both participants agree he/she is “a member of the clergy”.

My guess is that if all parties involved (other than the judge, obviously) acted in good faith, and no-one is actually challenging it, then the wedding will be assumed legal.

You need to distinguish between the legal requirements which are essential for a valid marriage, and the legal requirements which are consequences of a valid marriage.

It’s only a failure to meet conditions of the first kind which will result in a marriage being a nullity.

For example, most jurisdictions have a lower age limit for marriage, and this is normally an essential condition for validity. So long as either of the couple is under that age, then nothing they do will constitute a valid marriage. Similarly, in most jurisdictions it’s a requirement that the couple should be of opposite sexes. But of course each jurisdiction gets to decide for itself what the essential conditions for marriage are. So there may be different minimum ages in different places, and there are some jurisdictions which do permit same-sex couples to marry.

Registration requirements are normally not essential conditions. You are only obliged to register your marriage because you have, in fact, married. Should you fail to register your marriage, you may commit the offence of not registering (and so may the celebrant and/or the witnesses, depending on what the law says about who is responsible for registering a marriage) but you are still married. You may have difficulty proving it, of course.

So, the question comes down to whether the local law makes it an essential condition for marriage that it be celebrated by somebody with a particular qualification. If local law does provide that, and if the marriage is celebrated by somebody without that qualification, then legally you have no marriage. But whether local law does require that is a question that can only be answered jurisdiction by jurisdiction. And two further points:

  • The mere fact that the law imposes a particular condition or obligation doesn’t mean that it’s essential for a valid marriage. You’d need to read the legislation carefully to decide whether the legislature intended that failure to comply with this requirement would render the marriage a nullity. It’s a question that can only be authoritatively answered by a court.

  • There;s a particular problem in the US, where the local understanding of separation of church and state means that the courts are extremely reluctant to get involved in ruling who is, and who is not, a bona fide legitimate minister of religion. This can muddy the issue considerably, and it can also lead to the position that “the legislature is unlikely to have intended that using an ‘irregular’ minister would result in a void marriage, because the courts can’t determine who is a regular minister and who is irregular”.

We had a case in Australia a few years back. Ministers of religion are not automatically entitled to celebrate civilly-valid marriages in Australia; they need to be registered as marriage celebrants. This is done on a fast-track basis, with certification from the relevant church authorities; they don’t have to jump through all the hoops that civil celebrants have to. Still, they have to do it, and not all ministers of religion are civilly registered to celebrate marriages.

A couple got married in a large Pentecostal church in (from memory) Sydney, where there was a team of ministers. The senior pastor was registered as a marriage celebrant, but the couple wanted to be married by an assistant pastor with whom they had a close pastoral relationship; he wasn’t registered as a celebrant. Anxious to accommodate the couple, the ministers decided that the assistant pastor would conduct the service, with the senior pastor present in the church, and the senior pastor would later sign the marriage certificate stating, as required, that the couple had celebrated their marriage “before him” or “in his presence”, or some such language. This is what happened. The ministers didn’t trouble the couple by explaining these tedious legal technicalities to them.

In due course unhappy differences arose, and the one of the couple wanted to instituted divorce proceedings. Picture her surprise when she obtained a copy of her marriage certificate and found it signed by a minister who was not, to her recollection, the minister who had presided. Enquiries were made, and the whole story came out.

There was then the most unholy row, with one of the couple seeking a divorce, and the other seeking a declaration that the marriage had been void from the outset (which, at the time, would have made a difference to the terms on which the property and financial issues between the couple would have been settled).

The upshot was that the court ruled that, yes, parliament did intend that a registered celebrant should be an essential condition for marriage, and that when it required the marriage to be celebrated “before” a registered celebrant, it didn’t mean that there should be one present in the congregation. So the couple were found not to have been married. Note that the issue would never have arisen, though, if the couple had not sought a divorce.

Per catholic doctrine, the sacrament of marriage is performed by the couple themselves, with the priest (and congregation) being only witnesses. So if the priest later turns out to have been defrocked, or never really a priest, or something like that, it doesn’t matter – the couple is still validly married. (It does matter in that one of the main witnesses, the priest, has been shown to be fraudulent, thus his validity as a witness is questionable. But the best man & maid of honor also sign as witnesses, plus there are congregation members, wedding programs, etc., all of which could be used as evidence that a marriage took place.)

But this is only church doctrine, related to the religious view of a marriage. How it would be reflected in civil matters would depend on the actual text of the law in the appropriate jurisdiction.

Nit ahoy: a wedding, the marriage takes place daily.

Actually, not quite. Sacramentally, the couple are indeed the ministers and the priest is a witness, but he is normally an essential witness.

Catholics are required to be married in canonical form (i.e. before a Catholic priest), or to get a dispensation to marry without it. If a Catholic does neither of these things, but simply goes off and marries in a non-Catholic ceremony, then the marriage is not - except in rare cases, where marriage before a priest was not possible - valid. (From a Catholic church point of view. From a civil law point of view, the marriage is valid unless there is some other objection.)

However the requirement of canonical form only applies to Catholics. If two Baptists, say, marry in accordance with the rites of their own church, which naturally does not involve a priest, the Catholic church sees that as a valid sacramental marriage.

Certain branches of the Quaker faith, notably the Hicksites, do not have a formal clergy at all. In these groups, marriag vows are repeated before the local church, the certificate is signed by the church secretary and witnessed by elder members and is said to be sanctioned by the “authority of the meeting (congregation)”.

In a similar vein, a small fundamentalist church that I know of had for several years been led by a well-liked man whose only credentials were that of “lay preacher”. He was not ordained and had no standing as a clergyman but had performed several weddings. When someone finally called foul on this practice an uproar ensued among those couples he had “married”, who began to fear they were not married at all in the sight of God and had unknowingly been living in sin.

It was pointed out to them that the state - at that time - recognized a common-law marriage after only 30 days of cohabitation, so they were all legally married anyway. Most wanted the clerical sanction as well however. A district official of the church smoothed matters over by volunteering to quietly re-perform the ceremony for those who wanted it.

The Master speaks – if you believe the guy performing the ceremony is legit, so’s your marriage.

There is common law marriage, so even if the marriage ceremony was somehow legally not valid, the state has to recognize a couple living together as married as married, though only some states have this.
I’ve heard that if the intent of the couple was to marry then they are married regardless of the intent of the person performing the ceremony.

this only applies in states which recognize common law marriage. not all of them do, and the ones that don’t don’t recognize CL marriages unless you’re coming from a CL jurisdiction.

the post with the cite to Cecil is correct - usually if both spouses believed the marriage was solemnized correctly, it’s valid.

It was the first sitcom to do alot of things, but it drew heavily on earlier fiction. This plot device had been used before in film and on radio (actually I think that episode might have been one of the reworked My Favourite Husband scripts). I remember seeing a film from the '40s with that same plot. It involved a justice of the peace who officiated at a bunch of weddings after he was informed of his appointment, but before it was officialy published.

The issue came because on of the couples tried to get a divorce (offscreen) and it turned out the were neverl legally married in the first place. It then followed the other couples who needed to remarry. One couple was “Mr & Mrs America” on the radio, but hated eachother and we glad to not be married until they realized being single would cost them their jobs. Another was a sailor & his wife. She was very pregnant and couldn’t bear the humiliation of having to get a pre-marriage bloot test in that state and he was about to be sent off to sea.

The effect on the marriage will depend on state law and its requirements. The issue is discussed in American Law Reports, “Validity of marriage as affected by lack of legal authority of person solemnizing it,” 13 A.L.R.4th 1323.

There are cases that hold that the parties’ belief that they are entering into a valid marriage, followed by the consummation of that marriage, is sufficient. There are also cases that hold that a marriage solemnized by an unauthorized celebrant is void. Many of these cases have to do with the validity of the Universal Life Church. For example, a New York appellate court has held that a “minister” of the Universal Life Church is not a clergyman or minister authorized to solemnize marriages, and a marriage so solemnized is void. Ranieri v. Ranieri, 539 N.Y.S.2d 382 (N.Y. App. Div. 1989).

I seem to recall that, on “Friends,” Joey was a Universal Life Church minister and solemnized his friends’ marriage, or planned to do so. I don’t think the validity of his status as a minister came up.

Can you re-read your cite and verify that the (in)validity of a ULC officiant isn’t based in the fact that, in the cited cases, there was no bona fide belief on the part of the spouses that the officiant was official enough?

There should be a big difference, in terms of a void marriage, between the officiant being a fraud and everyone just wink-wink-nod-nodding away the solemnization requirement. Then again, it is New York and their absolutely goofy stance on marriage law.

From Ranieri:

*cases in a half dozen other states invalidating marriages performed by ULC ministers.


(n/m on the PS: it was an intermediate appeal)