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Trusts & Estates – Domestic Relations – Marriage Ceremony – No License

Trusts & Estates – Domestic Relations – Marriage Ceremony – No License

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In re Estate of Peacock (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-204-16, 16 pp.) (Linda McGee, C.J.) Appealed from New Hanover County Superior Court (Ebern Watson III, J.) N.C. App.

Holding: Although a minister commits a misdemeanor if she performs a wedding ceremony in the absence of a marriage license, the absence of the license does not affect the legality of the marriage itself.

We reverse the superior court’s order, which affirmed the clerk of court’s ruling that an unlicensed marriage ceremony did not make petitioner an heir of the decedent.


Petitioner and decedent were married on Aug. 1, 1993 and divorced in 2007. They reconciled, and petitioner moved back into decedent’s house in July 2012. The couple attended church and talked to their minister, Reverend Dena Bearl, about remarrying, but they never set a date.

Decedent became ill and was hospitalized on Nov. 16, 2013. Rev. Bearl performed a wedding ceremony in the hospital on Dec. 18, 2013, despite the fact that the couple had no marriage license. Decedent died intestate the next day.

Decedent’s daughter from a previous marriage filed an application for letters of administration. She listed four known heirs: herself, her brother from decedent’s previous marriage, and the two surviving children from petitioner’s and decedent’s 1993 marriage.

Petitioner filed a motion for determination of heirs, contending she was the spouse of decedent when he died.

Rev. Bearl testified that she told petitioner and decedent that, without a marriage license, the ceremony she performed would not result in a legal wedding. She testified that the ceremony was a sacrament that the couple wanted to know they had.

The clerk of court denied petitioner’s motion, and the superior court affirmed.


It is a misdemeanor for an officiant to perform a wedding ceremony in the absence of a marriage license. G.S. § 51-7. However, the lack of a marriage license does not invalidate the marriage itself. Wooley v. Bruton, 184 N.C. 438, 114 S.E. 628 (1922).

A marriage performed in full accordance with G.S. § 51-1, but lacking the license required by G.S. § 51-6, is valid and is neither void nor voidable.

Mussa v. Palmer-Mussa 366 N.C. 185, 731 S.E.2d 404 (2012), does not change this result. In that bigamy case, the husband bore the burden of proving that his wife’s first marriage was valid, but he failed to show that the officiant at the first wedding was authorized to perform a marriage ceremony.

Here, the 2013 ceremony was conducted in the presence of a minister authorized to perform marriage, and she declared that decedent and petitioner were husband and wife. Decedent and petitioner could lawfully marry at the time the ceremony was conducted, and they stated at the ceremony that they would take each other as “husband and wife freely, seriously and plainly expressed by each in the presence of the other….” G.S. § 51-1. The only remaining question is whether the couple “consented” to take each other as husband and wife.

The intent of the officiant is not a relevant factor in determining whether a valid marriage has resulted. Therefore, Rev. Bearl’s intent to perform a “religious ceremony” but not a “legal ceremony” does not affect the outcome in this case.

Decedent and petitioner reconciled; they functioned as a family with their son, Richard; and they both discussed their desire to remarry with Rev. Bearl. There is no evidence that the ceremony conducted by Rev. Bearl on Dec. 18, 2013 failed to comply with § 51-1. Therefore, decedent and petitioner were married on Dec. 18, 2013.

Reversed and remanded.

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