Enforcing Religious Marriage Contracts: How to Get a Get

On behalf of Ronald H. Kauffman, P.A. posted in Agreements on Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

Divorce can be tricky when the divorcing couple is religious. Religious issues have arisen for clients of all faiths. This is especially true during religious holidays like Passover/Easter, and usually deal with decisions over holiday timesharing and religious upbringing.

However, different religions can have unique issues. For instance, Muslim clients sometimes have had disputes over the interpretation and enforcement of Mahr agreements – a religious prenuptial agreement.

For Jewish clients, a frequent problem is the “chained wife” or agunah. In Judaism, for a divorce to be effective, Jewish law requires that a man grant his wife a get. An agunah, or chained wife, is legally divorced in Florida, but the ex-husband refuses to sign a get.

There has historically been an imbalance of power, giving men the upper hand when religious couples negotiate child custody, division of assets and other issues. In some cases, wives and their families have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their husband to grant them a get.

Recently, a Connecticut trial court affirmed the constitutionality of the Modern Orthodox prenuptial agreement created by Beth Din of America aimed at protecting chained wives.

The Jewish Daily Forward reports that Rachel Light, a former wife, entered into a prenuptial agreement which had a ‘damages for delay’ clause requiring the husband to pay roughly $100 per day for every day he refused to sign a get. Ms. Light may possibly claim damages of more tha $100,000 from her ex-husband because he refused to sign a get.

Susan Aranoff, director of the advocacy group Agunah International, called the decision a ‘breakthrough for women,’ saying, “The unanswered question with regard to the prenup was always will it be enforceable in court. Now that is has been enforced husbands know there is a cost for withholding a get.”

Last July Rachel sued arguing that while she and Eben had separated years earlier, Eben refused to grant her a get. Rachel asked the court to enforce the provision in the prenup in which Eben agreed to pay $100, plus adjusted inflation, for every day he refused to grant the get. Eben argued that the prenup was a religious matter, and as such, it was unconstitutional for a secular court to enforce the document.

In his opinion, the judge found that enforcing the prenup was no different from enforcing a secular contract. He cited several cases, including Odatalla v. Odatalla, where a New Jersey court enforced an Islamic mahr agreement, and Avitzur v. Avitzur, which ruled that it was constitutional for a secular court to enforce a ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract.