Courts Occasionally Intervene in Religious Disputes in New York City Divorce Cases

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To the State of New York, a marriage is a civil arrangement between two people to live together, support one another, share property, and possibly raise children. This view of marriage may lack romance, but it effectively addresses the needs of a diverse population. Marriage remains deeply connected to religious faith and practice for many people, and a particular religious tradition may have rules regarding marriage and divorce that differ from state law. This raises the question of how New York courts might address disputes of a religious nature. The short answer is that they do not adjudicate these disputes, except to the extent that participation in a religious procedure is part of a pre- or post-marital agreement, or that one or more elements of a religious procedure violate the law or public policy.

New York expressly defines marriage as a “civil contract” in the Domestic Relations Law (DRL). Both parties to a marriage must be “capable in law of making a contract,” and they must give their consent. The DRL does not prescribe any particular procedure for solemnizing a marriage, so couples are largely free to use whichever religious practice, secular procedure, or completely-made-up ceremony they want. The law mostly does not concern itself with the exact manner in which a couple gets married, as long as they meet the basic requirements.

Divorce in New York is also a civil matter, at least as far as the courts are concerned. The DRL requires parties to resolve issues related to property distribution, support and maintenance, and child custody. A spouse who wants to follow religious procedures during their divorce can get some support from the court, but only if the spouses signed a marital agreement stating that they would use those procedures. The court can enforce the agreement by ordering the other spouse to participate. These procedures often involve arbitration based on religious law, and the civil courts can also confirm—or reject—arbitration awards.

One example of a religious divorce practice is the requirement under Jewish law of a document known as a get, which finalizes a divorce on religious grounds and allows the wife to remarry within the Jewish faith. Traditionally, the husband must present the get to the wife of his own free will. In order to assist with these procedures, New York has enacted provisions in the DRL that require a divorcing spouse to “take[] all steps solely within [their] power to remove all barriers to the other party’s remarriage.” Whether this conflicts with the requirement that the husband act freely is left to religious authorities.

Civil courts have no authority to rule on whether a get is valid under Jewish law or on other issues related to the divorce. The New York City-based Beth Din of America is a rabbinical court that adjudicates divorces and other matters, although the proceedings are considered arbitration proceedings under state law. A New York appellate court ruled in 2010 that spouses can consent to arbitration by this type of organization and that the main role of the courts is to review claims of misconduct.

A New York City divorce case requires careful planning and preparation. In order to protect your rights and understand your obligations, you should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced divorce attorney. Ingrid Gherman has practiced family law in New York City for more than 30 years. She can prepare a strong case for you and advocate on your behalf in and out of court. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (212) 941-0767.

More Blog Posts:

New York Court Addresses Question of Husband’s Legal Competence to File for Divorce, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, December 6, 2016

Federal Court Dismisses Civil Rights Claim in New York Child Support Case, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, May 16, 2016

New York Court Rules Against Husband’s Voluntary Discontinuance of Divorce Case, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, March 14, 2016


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