Failure to grant a religious divorce can cost more than you think!

January 2, 2000 Published Work
Connecitcut Jewish Ledger, January 2000

In a precedent-setting ruling, a New York trial court deciding the divorce case of Giahn v. Giahn recently awarded all of a Jewish couple's assets to a wife because her husband repeatedly failed to give her a religious divorce and used promises of doing so to coerce her into an unfair financial settlement.
By way of background, it is important to note that a woman can only obtain a divorce in accordance with traditional Jewish law if she obtains a document of divorce, known as a get, from her husband, who almost always has sole control over the decision to grant the get. It follows that, without the get, a woman is not divorced and, therefore, cannot date socially or remarry within the religion. In light of this situation, a woman who has not received a get is referred to as "agunah" or "chained." As explained by one New York Court, "[o]bviously, this procedure gives tremendous power to a husband in a divorce proceeding. Without the husband's consent the wife will not be free to remarry. Thus he can dictate the terms of any agreement." Schwartz v. Schwartz, 153 Misc. 2d 789, 790 (N.Y.S. 2d 1992).
New York's courts frequently took notice of this disparity of power and, in 1983, the New York legislature enacted a law pursuant to which "a spouse seeking a civil divorce must remove all barriers to the remarriage of the other spouse. Specifically, a Jewish man who is a plaintiff must give a get if ordered to by a Beth Din [a religious court] or voluntarily give a get without a hearing before a Beth Din. If he refuses to comply with either the husband will be denied a civil divorce." (59 Misc. 2d at 790.) Governor Mario Cuomo added that "[t]he requirement of a get [was] used by unscrupulous spouses who avail themselves of our civil courts and simultaneously use their denial of a get vindictively or as a form of economic coercion," and noted that "this use of our civil courts unfairly imposes upon one spouse, usually the wife, enormous anguish." (Id. at 791)
New York's courts have "consistently held that a separation agreement or stipulation of settlement entered into between two parties may be subject to review for duress or overreaching and that the review will include the question of whether the control over the get was used by the husband to coerce the wife to yield to a settlement which is more beneficial to the husband." (Id.)
The spouses in Giahn entered into an agreement in 1992 pursuant to which the husband agreed to give his wife a get according to Orthodox Jewish law in exchange for which the wife would deed her interest in the couple's house. The house produced rental income that the husband agreed to account for and share. The wife executed the deed, but for eight y ears the husband collected rents without rendering an accounting or making payments to the wife and failed to give his wife a get.
Applying the above-referenced statute and related principles, the Court voided the original settlement agreement and awarded her the real estate and all of the couple's remaining assets. The Court explained that it appeared the wife was "entitled to at least something by way of compensatory and punitive damages" without having to file a second lawsuit. The Court stated that its ruling would hopefully send "word out to unscrupulous husbands who torture their former wives in this manner that the courts have reached zero tolerance for this sadistic practice.
Although Connecticut has no such statutory framework, it is not inconceivable that a similar result could be reached by a Connecticut court depending upon the particular circumstances of a given case.