Parties who marry in Maryland can choose to enter prenuptial agreements that are governed by religious rather than secular law. They can also elect to have issues that arise heard by an arbitrator outside secular law, such as a religious body. However, should you choose to do this, you should be aware that secular law may not have the authority to reverse substantive decisions made by a religious body that you have authorized to hear issues concerning a divorce, should one be necessary.
A recent case illustrates the kind of problems that can arise when you choose to sign a prenuptial agreement and arbitration agreement. In the case, a couple were married both under secular and Jewish law. They signed a prenuptial agreement that stated if the parties did not continue to live together, the man would pay the woman $100 a day from the day they stopped living together until the end of their Jewish marriage. They also signed an arbitration agreement which allowed an arbitration panel, the Beth Din (a rabbinical court) to decide all controversies in their Jewish divorce and the premarital agreement. The decisions were to be made in accord with Jewish law.
The couple had a child, but within a year after her birth, the marriage fell apart. The pair separated and the next year the man sued for a divorce. The woman counterclaimed and asked for sole custody and a variety of monetary awards. The trial court resolved custody and granted them an absolute divorce. The court denied the woman’s request for alimony.
The man petitioned the Beth Din for a “get” or Jewish divorce. An arbitration was scheduled at which the woman accepted the get. They heard arguments about the prenuptial agreement. The panel rejected the woman’s claim for the per diem obligation, which she calculated to be $108,000.
The panel found that the woman was entitled to $100 a day from October 1 when they stopped living together to January 10, 2006, when the man offered the get. The total amount was $10,200.
A rabbi found that under Jewish law, the man was required to pay her nothing. She had been offered the get early-on and refused it. Moreover, the Beth Din was empowered to avoid an unintended consequence resulting from a literal interpretation of a contractual provision. The intent of the parties here was not to demand money beyond what was negotiated or awarded by the court, simply to require the husband to pay economic costs for failure to grant a timely get. Because the husband was willing to give the wife a get soon after they stopped living together and she refused, she was not entitled to an award.
The woman asked the circuit court to vacate the Beth Din award. The man moved for summary judgment. The circuit court granted the man’s motion. The woman appealed and asked the appellate court to consider whether the circuit court had erred in denying her petition to vacate the arbitration award.
The appellate court considered the standard for vacating the arbitrator’s decision: the Maryland Uniform Arbitration Act (MUAA). Under MUAA, the award could only be vacated if it were procured through corruption or fraud, there was partiality by the arbitrator, the arbitrator exceeded its authority, the arbitrator refused to hear evidence or otherwise prejudiced the parties’ rights, or there was no arbitration agreement and a party had objected in a timely fashion.
In this case, the intent of the contract was to have the Beth Din decide the case. The woman had argued the award was irrational. The appellate court found that the Beth Din appropriately exercised its authority under its own rules and procedures and in accordance with Jewish law.
The woman had also argued that the rabbi who had reversed the award altogether had exceeded his authority. The appellate court disagreed with this, too, reasoning that the parties had agreed to abide by the Beth Din’s decisions and policies, which expressly gave the rabbi the authority to reverse the decision. The First Amendment prohibited the court from determining whether the reversal was appropriate under Jewish Law due to its religious nature.
The woman also argued that there were procedural protections offered by MUAA that were not given to her during the arbitration. However, the parties had knowingly waived the procedural aspects of the MUAA by entering into the arbitration agreement.
This is an interesting case because it shows how critical it is to get the help of an experienced attorney when entering into a prenuptial agreement or getting a divorce. If you are going through a divorce involving a prenuptial agreement, an experienced Maryland family law attorney can make a world of difference. Contact our office via the online form for a legal consultation.
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