The Cloud Created by Internet Ministers: Are You Sure You Are Legally Married?

 

               By Wade M. Fisher             

Jacob Hollerbush and Dorie Heyer had a private wedding ceremony on August 24, 2006.  A few weeks earlier, the couple had applied for a marriage license pursuant to Pennsylvania law, and the minister who served as the officiant at the ceremony filed the completed license shortly after the ceremony.  Nonetheless, a judge subsequently declared that their marriage was void from its inception. 

After hearing Heyer v. Hollerbush discussed at a recent continuing legal education seminar, I was left wondering how many other Pennsylvanians have been married under such circumstances that the validity of their marriages could be called into question.  The issue is important because when a marriage is voidable the parties are at risk of losing the rights and privileges of marriage which include, among others, the right to seek spousal support and the equitable distribution of marital property in a divorce proceeding, the right to inherit from their spouse’s estate and to take measures to prevent being disinherited by their spouse, and the right to spousal employment and certain Social Security and tax benefits.

The Heyer case concerned the qualifications of the minister who performed the marriage ceremony.  Pennsylvania law generally provides that the persons qualified to solemnize marriages include various judges, mayors of cities and boroughs within the state, and a “minister, priest or rabbi of any regularly established church or congregation.”

The minister who purportedly married the couple received his ministry credentials by completing an online application on the website of the Universal Life Church.  The minister was not a member of the Universal Life Church prior to his so-called ordination, had never attended a meeting of the church, did not have a congregation, and had no place of worship.  Based on these facts, the court concluded that the minister was not a minister “of any regularly established church or congregation” and voided the marriage.

One alternative for couples who have had their marriage voided is the establishment of a common-law marriage.  Pennsylvania law generally provides, however, that no common-law marriage contracted after January 1, 2005 is valid, and, accordingly, establishing a common-law marriage would be an option for only those couples who can prove that they satisfied the requirements for a common-law marriage prior to that date.

People who are uncertain about the validity of their marriage, whether because of the qualifications of the officiant who solemnized the marriage or for any other reason, can petition the court for a declaration of the validity or invalidity of their marriage, and it might be appropriate for them to seek legal counsel from a family law attorney to determine the advisability of doing so.

Wade is an associate at our firm.  His practice areas include estate planning and administration, elder law, and corporate law.

The information in this article is provided for information purposes only.  Nothing in this article is intended as legal advice, nor should it be interpreted as such.  If you need advice regarding legal matters, seek the advice of an attorney.