By Deborah S. Chames
I represent many Orthodox Jews in my practice. Under Jewish law, in order to obtain a divorce, the husband must give his wife a "Get," a divorce document, which effectuates the divorce.
Recently, I have seen husbands giving their wives the Get early in the divorce proceedings, allowing both couples to date and even marry under Jewish law even before the civil proceedings are concluded. While this may be beneficial to both parties, I worry that the practical ramifications of this as it relates to the new spouse have not been fully vetted and such a practice poses some concerns under secular laws.
For example, consider this hypothetical. Husband and Wife file for divorce. Husband gives Wife a Get early in the proceedings, but the proceedings drag on for two years as the parties fight over custody and support issues. Meanwhile, Husband meets New Wife and marries her under Jewish law. They do not have a secular wedding. If Husband dies during the divorce proceedings, Wife is still his legal spouse under state and federal law. Thus, without an updated will and without waivers from Wife on certain beneficiary accounts, New Wife would not be considered Husband's heir.
While it is possible that the parties could obtain a Get and execute the appropriate documents so that Wife in the hypothetical above would waive her rights to Husband's assets in the event of his death, that is unlikely. For if it were that easy, the parties would have gotten divorced in the secular courts as quickly as they obtained the Get!
Another example is health insurance. New Wife would not be entitled to health insurance under the Husband's insurance policy as he is still legally married to someone else. Likewise New Wife would not be entitled to social security as a result of the Husband's income because she is not his wife under the laws of the state.
Thus, I discourage my clients from entering into religious marriages without the proper protections from the State unless Husband and New Wife enter into a "prenuptial agreement" which would protect New Wife. However, this type of agreement, which may provide for support for New Wife, will not resolve issues such as employer-subsidized health insurance or entitlement to life insurance proceeds. In these instances, Husband can be legally married to one woman, religiously married to another woman and attempt to minimize his obligations to both through some sort of contract with New Wife. One might say he can have his cake and eat it too!
On the other hand, I strongly urge that whenever a husband wants to give a Get, the wife should take it. All of the rest will ultimately fall into place anyway, but often takes time. The woman who really has to be careful is New Wife who really is not really his wife at all as far as the state is concerned and should think twice before marrying a man under Jewish law without any protections under secular law.
By Deborah S. Chames