What are the legal obligations of marriage in NY, US?
November 14, 2010 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Is there a clear outline anywhere of the legal obligations of marriage? I haven't been able to find anything online. This can be either for New York state or the US in general. I would like to know what I am legally agreeing to before getting wrapped up in the romantic decision. I am not looking for the legal benefits of marriage, or for divorce law: I want to know what legal contract I'd be signing before I start the whole process. I'd prefer resources as opposed to anecdotal advice. Thank you.
posted by Cranialtorque to Law & Government (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The legal requirements for entering into a marriage vary slightly by state.

CT, for example, requires a blood test from both parties before a license will be granted; New York does not.

That said, there are federal-level laws, as well, such as those related to taxes and inheritances and absconding with children across international or state borders, etc.

So, the short answer to your question is: (1) the requirements to enter into a marriage vary at the state level, and (2) once in a marriage, there are a whole set of federal- and state-level laws.

I would speak with a lawyer if you really need a more coherent answer than this.
posted by dfriedman at 10:04 AM on November 14, 2010

My understanding is that marriage is more about legal rights than obligations. Here's NYS's marriage info maybe ask them? Or if you are interested in NYC call 311.
posted by cestmoi15 at 10:09 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for both answers. I should have also added that I'm not looking for the legal requirements to get married, either. I really want to know what it means legally, once we are married. What legal obligations do I have to her and vice-versa? Maybe speaking to a lawyer is a good idea, I was just really hoping to find an outline somewhere of what the contract means in the eyes of the law.
posted by Cranialtorque at 10:30 AM on November 14, 2010

A bit of googling on "legal consequences of marriage" turns up some material that might be useful, such as this pamphlet from the Missouri bar. But it looks like talking to a lawyer who specializes in divorce might be your best bet.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:42 AM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might check out "Family Law in a Nutshell." It's a popular series among law students looking for a broad overview of a particular topic, which seems like what you're after. It's about $35 new, but you can definitely find it cheaper used after exam times. If you have access to an academic library, they may already have a copy.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:05 AM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

For the most part, legal obligations come up in the divorce setting, which you've said you're not interested in.

The only legal obligation of marriage I can think of is a fairly minimal obligation to provide adequate support for your spouse. Don't drive a Porsche and fail to feed your family. Some more things will come up if you have kids, but that's not part of your question. Other than that, basic legal obligations (e.g., don't beat the crap out of her) continue to apply, but that's not marriage-specific.

Are you sure you're not interested in divorce law? Marital property will accrue, for example -- if you remain married this won't impose any obligation on you, but if you get divorced there will be rules about splitting it.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:27 AM on November 14, 2010

Also, if (for example) you buy a house together, then it will be a joint debt and you'll have mutual obligations to make payments, etc. But that's not a marriage thing, per se.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:28 AM on November 14, 2010

Sorry for the series of responses, but one more important thing: You really should talk to a family law lawyer in New York. Unless this is just idle curiosity and you don't really care how precise or accurate the information is, no one here can give you the answer your question deserves.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:32 AM on November 14, 2010

Agreeing with J. Wilson. There is a legal obligation to provide mutual support (food, shelter, health care). A spouse may be legally obligated to cover debts incurred by the other spouse. Some older cases talk about the obligation to have sexual relations, or to control the persons who live in the household (e.g. can one spouse veto the other spouse's brother moving in). There may be promises made in contemplation of marriage that become legally enforceable (to the extent a court can enforce, which may be limited). Otherwise, the law of marriage is really the law of divorce, and of the division of assets and liabilities.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:46 AM on November 14, 2010

Thanks all. I'm realizing I need to define my question better. Maybe part of the problem is that I don't know exactly what I'm asking. Joint property is a concern, another real concern is knowing what our obligations are if it all goes wrong. I hate to talk to a divorce lawyer when deciding to propose, but I'd hate to enter into any legal arrangement without knowing the consequences. It seems like people do it every day when it comes to marriage, but I'd like to have at as much knowledge about the marriage contract as I do about my cell phone contract. It seems the law doesn't come up unless you split, so maybe a divorce lawyer in NY state is the person I need to talk to.

I will look through the recommended pamphlet and see if I can find the book, too.
posted by Cranialtorque at 11:53 AM on November 14, 2010

The legal relationship between husbands and wives used to be much more clearly defined. Wives formally had a legal claim to support from their husband; this is no longer true (or is only equivocally true) in all jurisdictions. Some legal presumptions are obsolete or offensive: married women can now enter into any contract they please, so we no longer need to worry about whether married women can enter into contracts for luxuries; and it is now shocking and surprising when a husband sues his wife's lover for alienation of affection. I suspect that the only really clear effect of marriage is to make the participants liable to prosecution if they enter into bigamous marriages (i.e., second marriages without divorce from their former spouse).

You have said that you're not interested in divorce law, but keep in mind that your spouse will have apparent authority to enter into at least some contracts on your behalf, and someone suing your spouse might pursue your assets on the theory that you own them in common. These assumptions will almost certainly be true if they involve purchases with a joint credit card. Finally, if you are incapacitated your spouse will generally have the authority to consent to treatment on your behalf. If you die intestate ("without having written a will") your spouse will be one of your heirs, perhaps your only heir.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:13 PM on November 14, 2010

This might be a useful blog. For the principles of the division of assets and liabilities, see New York Domestic Relations, Article 13, section 236 Part B. There are currently 14 factors (note that the loss of health insurance benefits is one!):

In determining an equitable disposition of property under paragraph c, the court shall consider:

(1) the income and property of each party at the time of marriage, and at the time of the commencement of the action;

(2) the duration of the marriage and the age and health of both parties;

(3) the need of a custodial parent to occupy or own the marital residence and to use or own its household effects;

(4) the loss of inheritance and pension rights upon dissolution of the marriage as of the date of dissolution;

(5) the loss of health insurance benefits upon dissolution of the marriage;

(6) any award of maintenance under subdivision six of this part;

(7) any equitable claim to, interest in, or direct or indirect contribution made to the acquisition of such marital property by the party not having title, including joint efforts or expenditures and contributions and services as a spouse, parent, wage earner and
homemaker, and to the career or career potential of the other party;

(8) the liquid or non-liquid character of all marital property;

(9) the probable future financial circumstances of each party;

(10) the impossibility or difficulty of evaluating any component asset or any interest in a business, corporation or profession, and the economic desirability of retaining such asset or interest intact and free from any claim or interference by the other party;

(11) the tax consequences to each party;

(12) the wasteful dissipation of assets by either spouse;

(13) any transfer or encumbrance made in contemplation of a matrimonial action without fair consideration;

(14) any other factor which the court shall expressly find to be just and proper.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:19 PM on November 14, 2010

Cranialtorque: "I hate to talk to a divorce lawyer when deciding to propose..."

A NYS family lawyer will be able to help you. You do not need a divorce lawyer. It is worth doing if you're the sort of analytical person who likes data more than romance (and that is a fine thing to be, for the record.) There are definitely intersting things most people never consider buried in the law; for instance, it used to be the case that all children born of a marriage were the legal and financial responsibility of the husband, even if all parties acknowledged they were not his. I'm not sure if this is still the case, but the law is filled with weird little things like that you'll learn loads about.

TLDR: Family lawyer. And its a good, interesting idea, not a bad or suspicious one.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:35 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

From your second follow-up it seems you are more concerned about thefinancial impact of marriage. In that case, rather than a lawyer you should speak to a financial consultant about the implications (doesn't the US have something where if your spouse defaults on her taxes the IRS can come after the innocent one?). Here in Canada, legal or common-law marriage allows the spouses to trade pension credits so the spouse that was the primary caregiver gets an equal share of the pension, regardless of the current state of the marriage. Inheritances are another area to look into. On the upside, she makes a perfect partner in crime since she can't be forced to testify against you!
posted by saucysault at 12:37 PM on November 14, 2010

One of the reasons that people enter into pre-nuptial agreements is to sort this all out because there aren't many laws that apply during marriage. While divorce law does handle certain financial things, a pre-nuptial agreement can be much broader than that, down to who unloads the dishwasher, if that's what you want. It's a binding contract and sitting down and discussing what you both want from marriage and agreeing to it can be a sobering and worthwhile experience.
posted by Sukey Says at 1:23 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's hard to separate what a marriage contract means from what might happen if you were ever to get divorced. I married in NYS to someone who was equally analytical about the whole thing, so we researched all the laws and made ourselves a nice long pre-nup. And as unromantic as it sounds, I'd recommend writing a pre-nuptial agreement to absolutely everyone who wants to get married. We talked about all of the really difficult stuff - money, kids, hopes - while we were writing it. When we were done, it was absolutely clear we were on the same page. The whole process was good practice for figuring out how to talk about the tough stuff.

States differ as to what marriage is about, and the main reason you'd find out about the really big differences is if you were to get divorced. I think a family lawyer would be great, and I could not recommend more working on a pre-nup together. It's not an assumption that things will end badly. It's just making sure both of the people in love are on the same page.
posted by lauranesson at 4:33 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all the helpful answers. I will talk to a family law specialist in my state. The process of asking these questions, of trying to define what I want to know, makes me realize I am already letting romantic feelings color the practical aspects. I am concerned about what financial liability we have for one another, how we are responsible for each other's debts, and also what the fallout would be if things ever stop working between us. The fact that we are both older, with assets, property, and debts independently owned and owed, makes this all much more important than it would be for a younger or poorer couple. Asking about marital law without talking about the possibility of divorce is pretty impractical; that's when marital law comes into play. Thanks again, this has been very helpful, and I'm going to find this stuff out before I think seriously about popping the question.
posted by Cranialtorque at 8:58 AM on November 16, 2010

In California, there is a big line between assets and debts before marriage, and assets and debts during marriage. So that there is some effort to return "separate," pre-marriage property and debts to the original spouse at divorce. This can be more difficult than it sounds if it is a long marriage or if funds are intermingled. From the statute (I didn't look at case law), it looks like New York may be more nuanced in how it deals with pre-marital assets and debts, so am glad you will consult with a family law specialist.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:03 AM on November 16, 2010

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