New York Law Can’t Force a Mother to ‘Pretend’ to be a Hasidic Jew, Regardless of the Terms of Her Marital Settlement

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For parents going through a divorce, going through the legal process can be very challenging. One way to minimize some of the stress and difficulty can be to work out as many issues as possible through an agreement with your spouse. Of course, it is almost always a wise idea to consult and retain an experienced New York child custody attorney before you agree to anything that may affect your rights or your relationship with your children.

Settlement agreements are generally enforced in accordance with whatever the couple put down on paper. However, what happens if you agree to live a certain lifestyle and practice a specific religion (or sect of a religion) but then experience changes in your life? That was the issue before the Appellate Division recently.

The spouses, Naftali and Chava, were a married couple who were part of a Hasidic Jewish community. The couple had three children together and, after six years of marriage, divorced. In a stipulation of settlement, the couple worked out the issues of child custody. The parents agreed to share joint legal custody, with the mother having primary residential custody.

The document also required the parents to raise the children in the Hasidic tradition of “ultra Orthodoxy.” The stipulation said that the mother was required to “direct the children to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Jewish Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy at all times.” It went further, though, requiring the mother “to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy” whenever she had the children or made an appearance at the children’s schools.

Eventually, the parents ended up back in court. The father alleged that the mother had violated the stipulation. The mother had disclosed to the father several years earlier that she was a lesbian, so he expected her to have relationships with women, but he expected her to keep her orientation a secret, including from the children. He also expected her to faithfully keep all of the Hasidic traditions and requirements when the children were in her home. After the divorce was finalized, though, the mother came out publicly as a lesbian, had stopped wearing Hasidic clothing, and had disparaged the teachings of Hasidic Judaism to the children, according to the father.

The father’s argument was that the mother’s changed lifestyle and switching from Hasidic Judaism to more progressive Judaism amounted to a legal “change in circumstances” and that the judge should give him sole legal and residential custody.

Although the father was successful at first, the mother achieved a favorable ruling at the Appellate Division. One of the ruling’s very important points focused on the details of the stipulation of settlement. The mother couldn’t be punished for failing to uphold her obligations related to her dress, lifestyle, and religious choices. All of those parts of the stipulation were unenforceable. The law is very clear that a court cannot force a person “to adopt any particular religious lifestyle.” The court was very clear that it was not in the children’s best interest “to have their mother categorically conceal the true nature of her feelings and beliefs from them at all times and in all respects, or to otherwise force her to adhere to practices and beliefs that she no longer shares.” In other words, regardless of what was in the stipulation document, the law could not force the mother to pretend to be a Hasidic Jew (when she no longer held those beliefs) in order to have physical custody of the children.

With more than 30 years of experience assisting clients with child custody issues, New York attorney Ingrid Gherman is prepared to help you protect your legal rights when it comes to child custody. Facing the legal system when something as vitally important as your time with your children is at issue can be worrisome and scary. Don’t go it alone. Turn to our team of experienced legal professionals for the diligent advocacy and personal attention you and your family deserve. To schedule your free consultation, call us now at 212-941-0767 or contact us online.

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