By: Lisa Marie Vari
Many of us have become accustomed to hearing about the standard prenuptial agreement, but did you know about religious marital agreements? A Connecticut district court upheld a religious marital agreement meant to protect a wife who had no power to divorce her husband. Called an “agunah,” or a “chained woman”, they are unable to be religiously divorced from their husbands without their husband’s consent. For more on this case and to learn the position of the Pennsylvania family court on this issue, continue reading today’s blog.
The couple in this case utilized a rabbinical (Jewish law-based) prenuptial agreement, which set terms for child support and property division, similar to any other prenuptial agreement, although established in religious, and not civil law. This particular agreement states that a groom prior to his wedding obligates himself “to support [his] wife-to-be from the date that [their] domestic residence together shall cease for whatever reasons, at the rate of $150 per day.”
Because only men are able to religiously divorce their wives, however, they are frequently able to ignore this provision, requiring that their wife give up any claim to support in exchange for the religious divorce. Without this official divorce pronouncement, the woman is unable to obtain a second religious marriage, and are trapped in both civil and religious marital limbo.
The Court in Connecticut was the first American civil court to hold that this agreement was enforceable, and that the parties are bound by its terms. Israel family courts, which are religious institutions, have long enforced these agreements.
As of this moment, our Pennsylvania courts have refused to enforce these types of religious agreements, saying that it is not the place of the civil courts to involve themselves in religious institutions and agreements. These types of agreements therefore do not have the force of law in this state, and the legal system will be unable to use these agreements as a basis for awarding spousal support or alimony. Pennsylvania, as a general rule, will not substitute its judgment on a religious matter in the place of the judgment of the religious authority. However, a 2009 Supreme Court Case, Connor v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, did seem to suggest that the Court would have the power to intervene in matters of civil law on which members of a religious sect disagree, such as property law and trusts.
Religious prenuptial agreements are, as of this moment, presumed to be unenforceable in civil court. Therefore, it is important that all enforceable prenuptial agreements be drafted to ensure that both parties specify the desired terms of the agreement, and to consult with an experienced family law attorney to make sure that all provisions will be enforced by the Court. Check out our website for more information on prenuptial agreements, and contact our office to discuss drafting the best prenuptial agreement for you.