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Woman's Marriage to Half-Uncle Is All Legal: N.Y. High Court

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By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on October 30, 2014 10:00 AM

New York's highest court has ruled that a marriage between a half-uncle and his half-niece does not violate New York law.

The case involved a 19-year-old woman from Vietnam who married a 24-year-old naturalized American citizen. An investigation by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services uncovered that the man's half-sister was his wife's mother and an immigration judge subsequently ruled that the marriage was void and ordered that the woman be deported.

However, the New York Court of Appeals ruled this week that the marriage did not violate New York's laws against incestuous marriage. Why not?

New York Domestic Relations Law

Under New York Domestic Relations Law a marriage is incestuous and void if it is between:

  • An ancestor and a descendant
  • A brother and a sister (either whole or half)
  • An uncle and niece or aunt and nephew

Noting that New York law allowed marriages between uncles and nieces until 1893 and that first cousins are still allowed to marry in the state, the court found that the main purpose of incest laws -- the prevention of genetic disorders caused by inbreeding -- did not seem as applicable to marriages between half-uncles and half-nieces. The court's opinion further stated that had legislators intended to include the marriages of half-uncles and half-nieces among those that are prohibited by the law, it would have indicated the inclusion of half-blood relatives as it did for the prohibition on sibling marriages.

Can You Marry Your Cousin?

Incest laws vary from state to state, though marriages between lineal descendants (such as parents and children, or grandparents and grandchildren), siblings, aunts and nephews, and uncles and nieces are generally prohibited. Marriages between first cousins, however, are allowed in 19 states, including California, Florida, and New York. The practice is banned in 25 states, and in others, cousin marriage is only allowed under certain conditions, such as if one of the cousins is unable to reproduce.

As a result of the successful appeal, the woman who married her half-uncle will most likely be allowed to remain in the United States. The attorney for the couple told the New York Daily News that the couple's marriage was not done for immigration purposes, saying that the couple have "stayed together for 14 years and counting," also noting that the couple continue to deny being related to each other.

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