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Religious Pressure Can Factor Into Enforceability of New Jersey Prenups

praying couple

When it comes to the enforceability of New Jersey prenuptial agreements, two factors commonly cited to argue invalidation are: Coercion and duress. Religion can sometimes play a role in making these arguments.

Religion is a big part of many people’s lives, and it can have powerful influence over their decisions. Though religious affiliations have been trending downward in the U.S. over the last 20 years, a recent Gallup poll revealed 47 percent of Americans identify as belonging to a religious group. While that’s the lowest recorded percentage since Gallup started keeping count, it still makes clear that religion remains highly relevant for nearly half the U.S. population.

Furthermore, many religions have a lot to say when it comes to romantic partnerships, marriage, having/raising children, and divorce. This is why we can’t ignore its influence when it comes to drafting/executing New Jersey prenuptial agreements.

For instance, some prominent religions focus heavily on “sexual purity” prior to marriage. If that has been breached and exposure of that fact threatened to compel one of the parties to sign an unfavorable prenuptial agreement, that could possibly be considered duress or coercion.

Some religions require divorcing couples to obtain a religious divorce in addition to a legal one if either wants to eventually remarry. We have seen cases where one party withholds agreement to a religious divorce in order to compel more favorable settlement terms in their pending civil court case. Such instances, in turn, have compelled more than 80 percent of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. to now require marrying couples to sign a prenuptial agreement guaranteeing neither will use the religious divorce (known as a “get”) as a bargaining chip in their civil case.

A number of Family Court cases across the country have addressed this issue of prenuptial agreement enforceability when religious pressure was involved.

One such analysis took place in the 1994 New Jersey Appellate Division’s decision in Segal v. Segal. In that case, both parties were Orthodox Jews. The wife sought invalidation of the marital settlement agreement on the basis that she’d done so under duress, agreeing to sign it only because her husband threatened not to sign the Get (religious divorce) if she didn’t sign over the marital home. The Get requires the husband to sign a bill of divorce. Religious rules held that if she failed to obtain the Get, she would be unable to marry or even date other men.

The appellate panel in that case examined out-of-state cases, such as the New York case of Golding v. Golding. In that 1992 case, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York considered the case of a wife who sought invalidation of the marital dissolution agreement on the basis that it was obtained only after the husband refused to sign a Get unless she signed “an agreement to give him everything.” The Court ruled that even if the wife signed the agreement freely and voluntarily, she was still compelled to do so by his invocation of power in the Get proceedings.

The New Jersey Court, citing the Golding case, vacated the marital settlement agreement in Segal, concluding that such an agreement conditioned on obtaining a Get is essentially the same as extortion.

In Islam, the Quran encourages marriage and defines it as a solemn covenant, but generally holds it to be a contractual arrangement absent sacramental significance. That said, many marriage contract negotiations between Islamic families often contain something called a mahr, which may contain certain terms set by the wife’s representative (i.e, the husband can’t take a second wife), accompanied by a payment/property from the husband to be dispensed to the wife in the event of divorce or death. The general idea is to discourage divorce, but also to provide for the wife if it does happen. Some Family Courts - including in New Jersey - have concluded that these agreements can amount to prenuptial/post-nuptial agreements. In the 1978 case of Chaudry v. Chaudry, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division held that a mahr agreement was akin to an antenuptial agreement, and awarded the wife $1,500 in her deferred mahr, rather than what she sought, which was half her husband’s estate.

In another case out of Florida, a wife was successful in arguing invalidation of a prenuptial agreement on the basis of coercion - but not duress for religious-based pressure. In Bates v. Bates, the two met in 2001 in the wife’s native Colombia after connecting on a matchmaking site where the man sought a “Christian woman of child-bearing age.” She had just turned 19, was from a devout Catholic family, lacked financial resources, and did not speak English. He was a divorced, 41-year-old commercial airline pilot who did not speak Spanish. The pair were reportedly intimate during their first visit, she became pregnant, and he paid for an abortion. The two married soon after - but only after the husband insisted she sign a prenuptial agreement. Among the many questionable aspects about that agreement were that it was originally in English, the couple did not negotiate or even discuss the terms, and the wife never read it before signing it. Later when she filed for divorce, she sought invalidation of the prenuptial agreement, arguing it was obtained through duress and coercion. She felt pressured by the fact that her conservative family would never have welcomed her back if they knew she’d lost her virginity before marriage - let alone became pregnant and had an abortion. Further, she said her husband presented the prenup agreement to her as a condition of immigration to the U.S. The trial court agreed with the wife and invalidated the agreement on the basis of both coercion and duress. The Appellate Court later affirmed in part, reversed in part. The wife did not prove duress on the religious pressure grounds, the panel ruled, because there was no evidence the husband had threatened to tell her family what they’d done if she didn’t sign it. However, they did find the husband had coerced her into signing by insisting it was an immigration condition.

The main takeaway here is that prenuptial agreements - even those that are strictly religious-based - should always be carefully considered with the input of a family law attorney. It’s important this lawyer be someone who is experienced in this area of law, and will protect YOUR rights and best interests. If you are divorcing in New Jersey and are up against a prenuptial agreement secured with some degree of religious coercion, our Monmouth divorce lawyers can help.

Our New Jersey divorce lawyers can assist clients with divorce, division of assets, prenuptial agreements, child custody disputes, and more. Call us at (732) 810-0034 or visit us online.

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