A Marriage May be Deemed Valid Despite Non-Compliance With Legislative Formalities

Wedding rings representing formalities to determine if the marriage is valid

Written on behalf of Shariff & Associates

Marriage is accompanied by certain rights and responsibilities. Marriages that are formalized in another jurisdiction can be recognized in Ontario, but what happens when the parties only have a religious wedding ceremony? Are couples required to comply with all the formal statutory requirements in order to have a valid legal marriage?

If parties believe that their marriage does not comply with the formal marriage requirements in Ontario, the validity of their marriage can be called into question. This issue can significantly impact a party’s entitlement to equalization of family property.

Court Sets Out Criteria for a Valid Marriage

In Jamil v. Akhtar, the applicant sought a declaration that the parties’ religious marriage be found to be a valid marriage. Without the declaration, her claim for equalization of net family property could not succeed. In contrast, the respondent denied that the parties were married and suggested that the applicant had always known they were not legally married. Instead, he alleged the two agreed to a religious marriage ceremony so their families would accept them living together. Section 31 of the Marriage Act provides that:

“if the parties to a marriage solemnized in good faith and intended to be in compliance with this Act are not under a legal disqualification to contract such marriage and after such solemnization have lived together and cohabited as a married couple, such marriage shall be deemed a valid marriage … despite the absence of or any irregularity or insufficiency in the publication of banns or the issue of the licence.”

In Debora v. Debora, the Court of Appeal for Ontario outlined various elements that were required for section 31 to apply, specifically that:

  1. the marriage must have been solemnized in good faith;
  2. the marriage must have been intended to be in compliance with the Marriage Act;
  3. neither party must be under a legal disqualification to contract marriage; and
  4. the parties must have lived together and cohabited as a married couple after solemnization.

In Debora v. Debora, the Court determined that the parties did not enter into the marriage in good faith, as they intentionally did not comply with the Marriage Act, and a marriage license was not obtained.

Parties Did Not Intend to Comply With the Marriage Act

In Jamil v. Akhtar, the parties discussed living together but the applicant’s family encouraged them to get married under Islamic law. The parties agreed and had a celebration with family and friends in attendance. According to the applicant, this religious ceremony was intended to be a valid civil marriage. However, this was not consistent with other evidence. The parties understood that they had to register a marriage license for a valid marriage and they decided not to. Accordingly, they did not intend for the marriage to comply with Ontario law, and they failed to meet the second element of the test as set out in Debora.

The parties did not record themselves as being married on government documents, and throughout the relationship they indicated that they were single. Although they referred to themselves as married to family, in other social settings they continued to refer to one another as boyfriend and girlfriend. Finally, when the parties bought a home, the applicant stated that they were not legally married, which enabled the applicant to qualify for a homebuyer’s rebate. Ultimately, the Court found that the marriage was not valid.

Husband Assumes another Identity During Marriage Ceremony

Smith v. Waghorn was an unusual case where the husband had assumed another person’s identity. The parties cohabited in Ontario and were acquainted with an American male from Florida named John Muir. The parties later moved to Florida and obtained identification documents from Mr. Muir, which enabled the husband to work while they resided in Florida. The wife testified that while they lived in Florida they decided to get married and stated that the parties signed a Florida application to marry. That application listed the wife’s name, as well as “John S. Muir.” The wife alleged that she was present while the husband signed as John Muir. The wife also alleged that the husband continued to identify himself as John Muir after they left Florida. However, the husband denies that he ever used the name John Muir and that he was married to the wife.

The wife admitted that at the time of the marriage ceremony, she knew that the husband’s representation of himself as John Muir to the Florida officials was untrue. She indicated that the husband used this alias for the wedding to avoid any inconsistencies in the Florida records that might jeopardize his employability. However, the husband denied attending a marriage ceremony in Florida and claimed the parties were never married. Although, the husband did admit that he frequently indicated to the public that the pair were married and claimed that he was married on his income tax returns. This evidence supported the wife’s testimony that the parties were married to each other under the laws of the state of Florida.

Misrepresentation to State Officials did not Invalidate Marriage

The question remained as to whether the parties were married under Ontario law. Specifically, if the parties misrepresent one of their names to officials in another jurisdiction, then undergo a marriage ceremony in that jurisdiction, are they married under the laws of Ontario?

Justice Kane determined that the parties had intended to marry when they obtained a marriage license and performed a marriage ceremony in Florida, after which they cohabited and represented themselves as married. Moreover, there was no evidence that either party intended to limit their marriage only according to the laws of Florida. As the judge explained “it would be unusual that a person following the laws of one state intended to be married within that jurisdiction but not married in another jurisdiction.” Instead, the Court found the parties’ intention was to be considered married “in accordance with the laws of all jurisdictions” including Ontario. The wife’s knowledge of the husband’s misrepresentation did not extend to a recognition that the misrepresentation would invalidate the marriage. The wife was pregnant at the time of the marriage ceremony and she wanted to marry the husband. The parties then cohabitated, which confirmed their intentions at the ceremony.

In Iantsis (Papatheodorou) v. Papatheodorou, the Court of Appeal for Ontario stated that neither a fraudulent or innocent misrepresentation would affect the validity of a marriage, except in limited circumstances, such as “deception as to the identity of one of the persons to the marriage, as when A is induced to marry B, believing that she is marrying C.” That was not the type of misrepresentation in this case. The parties knew the true identity of each other and the misrepresentation was to an external party, the State of Florida. Their misrepresentation to Florida officials did not affect the validity of their marriage to one another.

Marriage Validity Cases Can Impact Financial Entitlements

The Marriage Act sets out criteria enabling marriages not in compliance with the legislative requirements to be deemed valid. The parties’ knowledge of their non-compliance with the legislation, and whether they consider themselves to be legally married are key elements when assessing the validity of a marriage. These analyses will be fact specific based on the parties’ circumstances, and the outcome can significantly impact financial entitlements following the end of a relationship.

Contact the Separation and Divorce Lawyers at Shariff & Associates in Markham-Stouffville for Advice on Family Property Claims

The experienced family lawyers at Shariff & Associates advise clients throughout Markham and the Greater Toronto Area on a wide variety of family law disputes, including separation, property division, and domestic contracts. We help clients navigate the complexities of litigation and advocate to protect our clients’ interests while issues are resolved. To schedule a confidential consultation with one of our trusted family lawyers, contact us at 905-591-4545 or reach out to us through our online form.