Uncle and niece’s marriage legal, US court rules

Family Law|October 30th 2014

The marriage between a man and his teenage niece has been ruled legal by the New York State Court of Appeals.

The court, in state capital Albany, ruled that the marriage did not violate the state’s Domestic Relations Law. Despite this law stating that marriages between an “uncle and niece or an aunt and nephew” would be void, the couple in this case were technically half-uncle and half-niece.

The bride’s mother is the groom’s half-sister, and as they do not share a father, the court unanimously ruled that the marriage was legal.

Judge Robert Smith said that as first cousins can legally marry in New York, it was “not the Legislature’s purpose to avert the similar, relatively small genetic risk inherent in relationships like this one.”

In 2007, an immigration tribunal deemed the marriage illegal after the bride, from Vietnam, had applied to stay in the United States. The couple married in the city of Rochester, in upstate New York, in 2000 when the husband was 24 and the wife was 19.

The couple’s lawyer welcomed the court’s decision. He said that it was “an all-or-nothing issue for them” as the wife “would have been deported and sent back to Vietnam” had the decision gone against them. However, he said that the couple’s marriage was not simply for immigration purposes. The lawyer noted that the couple has “stayed together for 14 years and counting”.

Even though the decision was unanimous, three of the judges suggested the possibility of the issue being revisited at a later date.

Judge Victoria Graffeo, one of the three, said relationships like this one “could implicate one of the purposes underlying incest laws”, which was to maintain “the stability of the family hierarchy” and to reduce “competition and jealous friction among family members”.

Photo of Albany, New York by Pete Dzintars via Flickr

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  1. Andrew says:

    I have to say this makes me queasy.

    So far as I know this marriage would be void if celebrated in England/Wales, regardless of the domicile of the parties, but valid if celebrated elsewhere and valid by the law of that place and by the law of the domicile of the parties – do you agree, Marilyn?

    And if valid at all it would be valid for immigration/citizenship purposes. We have made it more difficult for non-EU nationals to marry in the UK – obviously to make it more difficult to enter into a marriage of immigration convenience – but if a British citizen goes to the country of the would-be immigrant’s home and they marry there that is successfully evaded. Provided they then jump through the right hoops and are discreet leave to enter, indefinite leave to remain, and if desired naturalisation will follow.

  2. Luke says:

    They have been together for 14 freaking years ! That’s a very long time with the current divorce rate !
    The possibility of significant genetic risk in children in such cases is extremely low – this whole thing should have been adjudicated in 5 minutes flat and they should have been allowed to go on their way and get on with their lives.
    Maybe the legal system was short of work in New York at the time and they needed to string it out 🙂

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