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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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A key difference in Jewish divorce law

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There is little that can divide a family like money. It’s depressing to think of families torn apart fighting over inheritances, business deals or child succession roles. Throw in a divorce and extreme wealth and watch the fighting escalate.

The Ontario Superior Court recently overturned a spousal support waiver signed by Christine McCain, daughter-in-law of the founder of the McCain food empire, arguing that it was signed under duress. The court felt that a $5-million settlement, especially after 30 years of marriage, was just too little, considering the approximately $500 million net worth of her ex-husband.

While such huge amounts of money were unknown in talmudic times, our sages had to deal with similar issues, albeit on a smaller scale. In the world they lived in, it was the husband’s duty to support the wife, and there was no obligation or expectation that the wife would work outside the home. A father would support his daughter until marriage, at which point obligations of support were handed over to the husband. If the husband came from a wealthier family, he was obligated to raise his wife’s standard of living to his own. And if he was poorer, he would have to work hard, as he was not allowed to lower her standard of living from that which she was accustomed to. In other words a wife’s standard of living could only rise because of marriage.

This obligation of support was absolute. There was no obligation or expectation that the wife should work to help out. She could choose to do so, and in such cases, the money she earned would go into the “family pot” and would not be specifically hers. Nonetheless, a woman could opt out of the system and keep all the money for herself, provided she waive her right to support from her husband. 

In the unfortunate situation of divorce, Jewish law looked to ensure that neither spouse would have to deal with the other as they rebuilt their lives. The Torah term for a divorce – popularly known as a get – is actually sefer kreitot, meaning a book of separation. Unlike the western system of monthly alimony – forcing people who may (sadly) hate each other to deal with one another – Jewish law opted for a one-time payment, allowing spouses to sever all ties if they were so inclined. The amount was specified in the ketubah, likely the first prenuptial agreement.

While a minimum amount was required for all, higher amounts could and would be demanded from those able to afford more. Furthermore the assets that a woman brought into a marriage were enumerated in the ketubah, ensuring she could claim those assets upon divorce.

The women would then move back to her parental home or live on her own, but had no further claims on her husband’s assets. If and when she remarried, her second husband would be responsible for her support. To the best of my knowledge, a woman would not be entitled to claim a higher settlement solely because her husband made millions. Of course, Jewish law does not work in a vacuum and would need to take into account the law of the land.

Send comments to rabbijay@torahinmotion.org.

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