A Strong Offense
A Stronger Defense
In Estate of Weisberg, the New York Surrogate’s Court was faced with dual petitions for administration in the estate of Chaim Weisberg, an Orthodox Jew who died intestate. One petition was filed by decedent’s sister, as designee of decedent’s mother, who claimed that decedent was unmarried at the time of his death and his mother was his sole distributee. A cross-petition and motion for summary judgment was filed by Jannah Geaney, who claimed that she was legally married to decedent in an Islamic ceremony and was therefore his sole distributee and should be administrator of her husband’s estate. This case focused on whether Geaney met her burden of making a prima facie case of entitlement to summary judgment. The Court ultimately determined that she had not met her burden even though the Court found no material issue of fact that the decedent and Geaney took part in an Islamic marriage ceremony.
In a family court proceeding in which Geaney and decedent both sought an order of protection against the other, the court ruled that the two were married. But the Surrogate’s Court held that the decision was neither a final determination on the merits nor a determination of an issue material to the family offense proceeding, but merely an administrative finding made for the purposes of assigning the case in family court. Thus, it had no preclusive effect.
The Surrogate’s Court rejected an affidavit by Geaney supporting that the marriage as it was not in admissible form because it lacked a jurat indicating that it was sworn to before a notary public. The court also rejected an affidavit by the president of the Islamic Counsel of America, Inc. concerning the marriage ceremony because it was based solely on information and belief.
After reviewing the remaining admissible evidence, the Surrogate’s Court ultimately found that although there was no issue of fact to dispute the occurrence of the marriage ceremony between the parties, the fact of the ceremony did not settle the question of whether, as required for the purposes of the motion, the ceremony constituted a valid marriage under New York law. Geaney produced no requisite evidence as to the qualification of the officiant at the marriage or a sufficient description of the ceremony to demonstrate, for purposes of summary judgment, that the parties “solemnized” their marriage by declaring in the presence of clergy and witnesses that they take each other as husband and wife.
The court thus denied the motion for summary judgment, leaving it for the parties to go to trial to determine whether Geaney’s and decedent’s “marriage ceremony” constituted a valid marriage under New York law and who should be the administrator of decedent’s estate.