We’ve mostly all heard the phrase “separation of church and state.” For many folks, though, the process of getting married inherently involves aspects of both secular and religious law. If you and your spouse-to-be seek to make binding promises as part of your religious obligations, it is important to proceed with the aid of a knowledgeable South Florida family law attorney. That’s because, if there is eventually a question later about something you or your spouse promised, it will be a Florida civil court and not a religious tribunal that decides the outcome, so you need to be sure that whatever you agreed to can be enforced by the secular courts in Florida.
This issue has popped up in multiple places recently, and two very recent decisions highlight how the courts might handle your religion-influenced case. In Maryland, an Islamic couple had undergone a civil marriage and an Islamic one. In the Islamic process, the husband made a mahr which, according to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, is a gift that the groom “has to give the bride when the contract of marriage is made and which becomes the property of the wife.”
The wife eventually filed in state court in Maryland to compel the husband to fulfill his mahr promise. The court ruled for the wife because it was able to resolve that dispute using solely secular Maryland contract law. The wife won because she had proof of the terms of the agreement, and the husband lacked evidence that the mahr agreement was either unconscionable under Maryland law or the product of “fraud, duress, coercion, mistake, undue influence,” one party’s incompetence or bad faith.
A plaintiff in Connecticut, however, was less successful. In that case, reported by reason.com, the husband sought to enforce a Jewish contract called “Ketubah,” which declared that the parties agreed to divorce in accordance with the Torah law of Judaism. The husband’s argument was that, under his Ketubah and Torah law, the wife was entitled to zero alimony, and he had a rabbi to back him up. The wife argued that the Torah didn’t prevent her from getting alimony, and she had a rabbi to support her position. Because the court could not resolve the dispute without making a ruling about the correct way to interpret the Torah, the judge ruled that the state court lacked jurisdiction and declined to hear the case.
So, what can you learn from these out-of-state cases when it comes to your Florida prenuptial agreement, marriage, or divorce? You can take away that Florida courts will resolve your religion-involved issues the same way. For example, several years ago, a Florida District Court of Appeal ruled that a mahr agreement was enforceable, concluding that the dispute could be decided based strictly on secular legal standards like whether or not there was adequate consideration to create a binding contract.
The court must be able to rule without having to decide religious doctrinal issues
In other words, if the dispute can be resolved by answering questions of Florida law, such as “does this agreement have all the required elements for a valid contract in Florida,” then you can use the court system to get the relief you desire. If the dispute requires the court to make determinations about religious laws instead of just Florida law, you are likely to be unable to get the relief you need from that civil court, so it is essential that you have the right written documents with all the right provisions such that a civil court in Florida is permitted to make a ruling.
The right written documents that plainly state what the terms of your promises and agreements are can allow you to, whether in the context of a prenuptial agreement, marriage or divorce, honor traditions of your faith (or your values rooted outside religion,) while also protecting by permitting civil court enforcement when necessary. For the effective documents, thoughtful advice, and diligent advocacy you need, count on the skilled South Florida family law attorneys at Stok Kon + Braverman.
Contact us online or by calling (954) 237-1777 to schedule your consultation.