In the case of In re May’s Estate, 114 N.E.2d 4 (N.Y. 1953), the highest court in New York held that a marriage between an uncle and his half niece would be recognized by New York, despite being prohibited by Section 5 of the Domestic Relations Law. A further look into the Court’s thinking explains why this exception was made.

In May’s Estate, Fannie May was Sam May’s half niece. They both wanted to get married, but New York’s Section 5 prohibited it. However, Connecticut allowed it because they had an exception to the uncle-niece marriage prohibition where the parties were Jewish and the marriage would be allowed by their religion. Since Fannie and Sam May were Jewish and their religion allowed for their marriage, they left for Connecticut for the purpose of getting married, then returned to New York where they lived as a married couple until Fannie May died. When she died, Sam May (her surviving spouse) wanted to handle her estate. However, one of Sam May’s children believed she should handle her late mother’s estate instead because Sam May’s marriage should be declared void since it violated Section 5, which voids any marriage between “[a]n uncle and niece or an aunt and nephew.” See N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 5(3).

The case was strongly contested by both sides, ultimately making it all the way to New York’s highest court which concluded that the marriage would be recognized and not declared void despite Section 5. The Court of Appeals made this decision on the basis that the legality of a marriage should be based on the laws of the state where the marriage took place, unless: there was a New York law that prohibited it or the marriage involved “polygamy or incest in a degree regarded generally as within the prohibition of natural law.” May’s Estate, 114 N.E.2d at 6 (citing Van Voorhis v. Brintnall, 86 N.Y. 18, 26 (N.Y. 1881). The Court stated that the first exception did not apply since Section 5 did not expressly state it would apply to marriages taking place outside New York and the second exception did not apply because the marriage was conducted in accordance with the Jewish faith in a state that allowed the marriage and therefore was not against natural law. As a result, the Court in May’s Estate recognized a marriage that was explicitly prohibited by Section 5. This case serves as an example of how the law in a state is comprised not just of statutes, but case law as well.

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