Can you imagine living with something for twenty years, believing you are legally married, only to find out that you really aren’t? While this might seem like a crazy scenario, it actually has happened many times to my clients in all of the years I have been practicing New Jersey divorce law. Sad but true, many clients who are in this predicament only find out that their marriages are not actually legal when it comes time for a divorce. Just recently, this was the case with Michael and Debra Mandelbaum. Let’s explore.

The Mandelbaums had been married for over twenty years, or so they thought. The couple had been married by a New Jersey rabbi and had a formal Jewish wedding ceremony. Additionally, after the ceremony the couple had three kids together, filed joint tax returns, owned a home together, and gave each other wedding anniversary cards—all activities which a vast majority of married couples engage in.

Yet, after twenty years of thinking they were legally married, Mrs. Mandelbaum hired a New Jersey divorce attorney and filed for a divorce. However, instead of answering to the divorce complaint Mr. Mandelbaum did some research of his own. He discovered that twenty years ago when he thought the wedding ceremony was legal, it actually was not. To be legally married in New Jersey, a couple must get a marriage license before having a wedding ceremony. In the case of the Mandelbaums, the Jewish wedding ceremony occurred sixteen days before the marriage license was granted. Therefore, Mr. Mandelbaum argued that they were not legally married pursuant to New Jersey law and sought to have the divorce complaint dismissed.

This position that Mr. Mandelbaum took on his case was a very unique and strategic one. Important to the facts of the case was the wealth involved. Mr. Mandelbaum not only held a stake in the Minnesota Vikings football team, but also owned an interest in Vornado Realty Trust, one of the biggest owners of retail and office space in the country. Had the Mandelbaums legally been married, Mrs. Mandelbaum would have been entitled to equitable distribution of the marital assets, potentially alimony, and child support. However, since the couple was not legally married in the eye of the law of the state, Mrs. Mandelbaum’s chance at walking out of the marriage more financially sound vanished. Of course, the children born of the couple would be taken care of and made sure that everything was in their best interest.

While Mr. Mandelbaum’s plan was as I said earlier strategic, the court still considered good faith of the parties. The couple lived together for over twenty years under the impression that they were married and acted like a married couple. Mr. Mandelbaum therefore, would be held to some standard of good faith to act in Mrs. Mandelbaum’s interest as well. Furthermore, Mrs. Mandelbaum did produce evidence for the court to prove that Mr. Mandelbaums lived and acted as her husband for twenty years. She submitted anniversary cards, particularly the one from their twentieth wedding anniversary, in which Mr. Mandelbaum wrote that he would marry Mrs. Mandelbaum all over again.

So, with all of this said, even though the couple was technically not legally married in the eye of New Jersey lawmakers, Mrs. Mandelbaum did not get as bad an end of a deal as Mr. Mandelbaum had intended and hoped for. While this situation does not occur every day, it is possible and has happened many times in the past before. As a word of advice, be sure to obtain a marriage license before having a wedding ceremony to ensure that your marriage is legal in New Jersey. For more questions on this issue, please contact my office today. Thank you.