Can You Get a Divorce if You Never Got a Marriage License?

One of the most important steps an engaged couple must take before the wedding is obtaining a marriage license. The marriage license is a legal document signed by the couple, the officiant, and the witnesses; it proves the marriage has taken place. The license must be filed with the state before a certificate of marriage is issued. The marriage is not legal until the license is completed and filed.

But what happens if you have a wedding but don’t obtain a marriage license? That question arose in Geena Davis’s divorce from Reza Jarrahy. Davis is an actor best known for her role in the movie Thelma and Louise; Jarrahy is a surgeon.

Davis and Jarrahy’s “Marriage”

In 2001, Davis and Jarrahy held a New York wedding ceremony officiated by Jarrahy’s father, with a Catholic priest participating. Davis testified she hired a wedding planner and caterers for the ceremony. In her vows, Davis promised to love Jarrahy as her husband until she died. In a later interview, Davis told Oprah Winfrey what a wonderful “husband” Jarrahy was.

However, when the couple filed for divorce in 2018, Davis claimed they had never completed or filed a marriage license and that Jarrahy’s father was not legally authorized to marry them. She testified in court that the couple agreed to wait until after the wedding to get the license so the media would not find out. They never did obtain the license. During their “marriage,” they filed and paid taxes separately, held property only in their separate names; Jarrahy was denied health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), since Davis could not provide a marriage license.

Davis argued that, because they were never legally married, they could not get a divorce. If there was no divorce, there could be no division of assets or spousal support award, which Jarrahy was seeking. Jarrahy responded that his father is considered an officiant under Islamic law, and the marriage was legal.

The Role of the Marriage License

Each state requires a marrying couple to file a marriage license for a ceremonial marriage to become legal. In New York, the license must be obtained from a town or city clerk at least 24 hours before the actual wedding (unless a judge waives this requirement). The applicants can apply in person or send notarized marriage license affidavits. They must provide proof of age and identity. The license is valid for 60 days and currently costs $40. The couple must have the ceremony in New York for the license to be valid. After the ceremony, the couple must file the completed license with the issuing clerk and, within 15 days, they will receive a Certificate of Marriage. If a license is not filed, there is no legal marriage. If there is no legal marriage, the couple is not eligible to file for divorce.

The Role of the Officiant

For the marriage ceremony to be legal, it must be officiated by a person who has the legal authority in that state to marry couples. In New York, the following are authorized to perform marriages:

  • A current or a former New York state governor
  • The mayor of a city or village in New York
  • A former mayor, city clerk, or deputy city clerk of a city with more than one million inhabitants
  • A marriage officer appointed by the town or village board or the city common council
  • A justice or judge of a New York court of record or a Native American tribal court
  • A village, town, or county justice
  • A member of the New York State Legislature
  • A member of the clergy or minister of any religion or the Society for Ethical Culture

If the officiant does not fit one of these categories, the ceremony is not valid, and there is no legal marriage.

Divorce without a Legal Marriage

If an unmarried couple lives together, then separates, they generally do not have access to a divorce proceeding. There are a few methods to proceed in this situation.

  • Eight states allow some form of common-law marriage. A common-law marriage occurs when a couple lives together for a period of time (often 10 years, but not necessarily) and they refer to one another as spouses. After the specific number of years has passed, they may be considered married. In that situation, divorce is possible. Note that Davis and Jarrahy were married in New York and filed for divorce in California, neither of which are states recognizing common-law marriages.
  • The unmarried couple could seek mediation or collaborative lawyers and create a settlement agreement encompassing asset division, child custody, child support, and even monetary payments if they agree.
  • Palimony (alimony for an unmarried couple) is an option in a few states. Palimony is a situation where a couple cohabitated, and promises were made about financial support after the end of the relationship. In some states, if the specific requirements are met, a court can order palimony. However, these cases are rare and legally complex.
  • The other option is going to family court to have custody and child support determined. Asset division can only occur by agreement or through a non-divorce lawsuit that determines who owns each asset. There is no access to spousal support through the courts if the couple was never married, except as described above.

Settlement in the Davis-Jarrahy Case

After three years of legal proceedings, Davis and Jarrahy reportedly settled their case. It is possible Davis realized she could face a complex case that not only examined the legality of the marriage but also involved a claim for palimony. It is also possible Jarrahy realized the marriage was unlikely to be upheld as legal, and he could potentially get nothing despite spending thousands of dollars on legal fees.

The Lesson from this Case

The takeaway from this case is that marriage licenses do matter, even if they seem like a simple piece of paper. Without that license, there is no legal marriage and no right to property division or spousal support in New York state. Obtaining and filing a marriage license is a crucial part of any marriage, even if filed after the ceremony. Additionally, it is important to be sure that the person performing the marriage is legally authorized to do so.

Another important lesson is that pre-nuptial agreements are essential in complex financial unions. It appears Davis and Jarrahy did not have one. A pre-nuptial agreement allows a couple to create a binding plan for how they will divide assets and support each other after a divorce and avoids a contentious and lengthy divorce case.


Naomi Schanfield

Naomi Schanfield concentrates on all aspects of matrimonial and family law, including, prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, divorce, equitable distribution, child custody and visitation, support matters, family offense disputes, and domestic violence.

To connect with Naomi: 212.682.6222 | Online

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