Duress has long been considered by New Jersey courts as a cognizable defense where the provision of a Get – defined as a Jewish ecclesiastical divorce – is conditioned upon a party’s capitulation to contract terms.
For example, in the 1994 Appellate Division case Segal v. Segal, the court invalidated a Marital Settlement Agreement where the husband withheld a Get until the wife conveyed a Lakewood property to him in the divorce.
In so ruling, the Segal Court examined cases in other jurisdictions where agreements procured by this particular brand of religious coercion and duress were invalidated, particularly in the context of Beis Din proceedings.
One such case examined by Segal was the New York case, Golding v. Golding, where a husband repeatedly submitted documents to his wife containing terms of divorce favorable to him, and threatened not to grant her a Get unless she signed the documents.
The New York Golding Court concluded that “it is evident plaintiff did not freely and voluntarily enter into the agreement but was compelled to do so by her husband’s invocation of his power to refuse to give her a Jewish divorce.”
The court also noted:
[E]ven if the document(s) signed by plaintiff had, in fact, been the product of rabbinical arbitration, as defendant alleges, this still does not preclude the court from examining its substance and the procedure by which it was adopted so as to ascertain that there was no fraud, duress or overreaching. The judiciary must merely refrain from delving into matters concerning religious doctrine. At any rate, the Supreme Court properly found that there was no indication of rabbinical arbitration, simply that the rabbis had acted as go-betweens for the parties.
Relying on Golding and other cases, the New Jersey court in Segal vacated the Marital Settlement Agreement, finding that the Wife was subjected to “‘extreme pressures.’”
According to the Segal court, conditioning an agreement on obtaining a Get is “akin to extortion.”
This raises other types of religious extortion that could exist in the context of a Jewish divorce.
For example, overarching and palpable sentiments are sometimes expressed in Beis Din that if one proceeds to civil court, he or she is transgressing Jewish law and will be ostracized from the community. Furthermore, sometimes undertones exist in Beis Din that custody would surely be lost for one party or anther in civil court.
These types of overt and covert pressures – while perhaps rightfully religiously based – could prompt an individual to sign an Agreement to Arbitrate and submit a dispute to Beis Din, even when the situation dictates that may not be the most appropriate forum for that particular case.
Those types of situations may also arguably be considered religious extortion in the same way as conditioning a divorce agreement on a Get.
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel that you are under pressure due to religious-based extortion, you should reach out to an attorney for further advice.
Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a partner in the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or firstname.lastname@example.org.