For such a formal process and status, marriage has a very fuzzy legal definition — other than the oft-repeated comparison to contract law. Although it is recognized as a statutory category, marriages can be performed by religious officials, judges, public officials and (according to urban legend) ship’s captains. There is often a requirement for registration of a marriage license, but unlike other state-issued licenses, it is almost never necessary to produce this license. Legal marriages in any state are recognized in any other state under the “full faith and credit” provision of the US Constitution. Marriages between foreign nationals are recognized in other countries by long-standing international custom.
However, with the possibility of Canada — and Massachusetts — recognizing same-sex marriages, this all may change. If the US and its several states decide to selectively recognize foreign marriages legal in their original country or state, there may be stricter requirements for proof of marriage at borders and offices and anytime a married couple comes into contact with the machinery of government. And that leaves me wondering about my (hardly unique) situation.
Although my wife and I are both American citizens, back when we were poor, we decided to get married in Florence, Italy. It was a romantic notion as well as a practical one: if we could only afford a big party or a honeymoon abroad, we decided we’d rather have the vacation.
It was a complicated process, involving visits to the Italian Consulate in New York, the New York Department of State, and having our birth certificates translated into Italian; then once we were in Italy, we had to visit the US Consulate, purchase official stamps from an apothecary shop, arrange for a translator, and navigate the bureaucracy to permit a waiver of the “posting of the banns” while speaking virtually no Italian. We were married by the Mayor of Florence in the “Sala Rosa” of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Immediately before the ceremony, we signed our names in a red vinyl looseleaf notebook which was then shelved on the wall with all the other notebooks in reverse chronological order; the newest books were like the one we signed, moving back in time to larger buckram-covered books, then back further to folio-sized, red leather-bound books in glass cabinets. The Mayor’s aide, who also served as our translator, told us that the books contained all the names of the people who’d been married in Florence going back to the mid-1400s.
Walking back to our hotel through the streets of Florence, Jenn carried a half-dozen white roses given to us as part of the ceremony. Strangers smiled, and recognizing the roses (obviously a tradition in that city), wished us “Buona Fortuna!” In the 7 years we’d lived together before tying the knot, we always considered ourselves mariied. Walking through the narrow streets of that Old World city, we felt that our marriage was now recognized by everyone else.
Back in the US, we filed away the flimsy little piece of paper which read “Certificato di Matrimonio, Commune di Firenze.” The only time we’ve ever taken it out since then is when we want to show people our honeymoon photo album. (Interestingly, Jenn’s middle name “Anne” was modified by the secretary who typed the certificate to the much more Italian sounding “Anna.”) When we filed our taxes that year, we filed as married, providing no documentation of that fact to the IRS. We’ve had a number of jobs since then, lived in two states and at least five different cities, bought a house, drafted a will, and no one has EVER asked us for proof of our marriage. Will this change?
And, if it won’t change, what’s to stop a same-sex couple from filing their income taxes as married one year? You need to start somewhere.