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New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook

The New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook by Joel R. Brandes is available in Bookstores and online in the print edition at the Bookbaby Bookstore, Amazon Barnes & Noble, Goodreads and other online book sellers. It is also available in Kindle ebook editions and epub ebook editions for all ebook readers in our website bookstore. The New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook is divided into five parts: (1) Preliminary Matters Prior to the Commencement of Trial, Conduct of Trial and Rules of Evidence Particularly Applicable in Matrimonial Matters; (2); Establishing Grounds for Divorce, Separation and Annulment and Defenses; (3) Obtaining Maintenance, Child Support, Exclusive Occupancy and Counsel Fees; (4) Property Distribution and Evidence of Value; and (5) Trial of a Custody Case. There are thousands of suggested questions for the examination and cross-examination of witnesses dealing with very aspect of the matrimonial trial. Click on this link for more information about the contents of the book and on this link for the complete table of contents.

The New York Matrimonial Trial Handbook was reviewed by Bernard Dworkin, Esq., in the New York Law Journal on December 21, 2017. His review is reprinted on our website at http://www.nysdivorce.com with the permission of the New York Law Journal.

Joel R. Brandes, is the author of Law and The Family New York, 2d (9 volumes) (Thomson Reuters), and Law and the Family New York Forms (5 volumes) (Thomson Reuters). Law and The Family New York, 2d (9 volumes) (Thomson Reuters), is both a treatise and a procedural guide. The text analyzes every aspect of New York Family Law. Law and the Family New York Forms, 2d (New York Practice Library, 5 Volumes) provides practitioner-tested forms for New York divorce and family law matters.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Religious Upbringing Clause in Custody Agreement Cannot Be Enforced Extent it is not in Best Interests of Children or Violates Parent’s Legitimate Due Process Right to Express Oneself and Live Freely.

           In Weisberger v Weisberger, --- N.Y.S.3d ----, 2017 WL 3496090, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 06212  (2d Dept., 2017) in their stipulation of settlement dated November 3, 2008, which was incorporated but not merged into their 2009 judgment of divorce, the parties agreed to joint legal custody of the children with the mother having primary residential custody and the father having specified visitation. The stipulation contained the following religious upbringing clause: “Parties agree to give the children a Hasidic upbringing in all details, in home or outside of home, compatible with that of their families’. Father shall decide which school the children attend. Mother to insure that the children arrive in school in a timely manner and have all their needs provided.”The stipulation of settlement further provided that each party “shall be free from interference, authority and control, direct or indirect, by the other.” 

In November  2012, at which time the children were nine, seven, and five years old, respectively, the father moved to modify the stipulation of settlement so as to, inter alia,  award him sole legal and residential custody of the children; award the mother only supervised therapeutic visitation; and  to enforce the religious upbringing clause so as to require the mother to direct the children to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Jewish Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy at all times and require her to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy during any period in which she has physical custody of the children and at any appearance at the children’s schools. In support of the motion, the father alleged that the mother had radically changed her lifestyle in a way that conflicted with the parties’ religious upbringing clause. The father alleged that since the parties had entered into the stipulation of settlement the mother had, among other things, come out publicly as a lesbian, disparaged the basic tenets of Hasidic Judaism in front of the children, allowed the children to wear non-Hasidic clothes, permitted them to violate the Sabbath and kosher dietary laws, and referred to them by names that were not traditionally used in the Hasidic community. The father further alleged that the mother had dressed immodestly, dyed her hair, and permitted a transgender man to reside in her home with the children.

Supreme Court determined that there had been a change of circumstances caused by the mother’s transition from an ultra Orthodox Hasidic lifestyle to a “more progressive, albeit Jewish, secular world.” The court noted that the mother’s conduct was in conflict with the parties’ agreement, which “forbade living a secular way of life in front of the children or while at their schools.” The court posited that had there been no agreement it might have considered the parties’ arguments differently; however, “given the existence of the Agreement’s very clear directives, [the] Court was obligated to consider the religious upbringing of the children as a paramount factor in any custody determination”. Supreme Court awarded him sole legal and residential custody of the children, as well as final decision-making authority over medical and dental issues, and issues of mental health, with supervised therapeutic visitation to the mother. The court stayed the provision of the order limiting the mother’s visitation to supervised therapeutic visits, conditioned upon, inter alia, her compliance with the religious upbringing clause. Supreme Court enforced the religious upbringing clause so as to require the mother to direct the children to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy at all times. The court ordered that during any period of visitation or during any appearance at the childrens’ schools “the [mother] must practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy.”

The Appellate Division modified the order. It observed that to the extent the mother’s sexual orientation was raised at the hearing, courts must remain neutral toward such matters, such that the focus remains on the continued best interests and welfare of the children. The Appellate Division found that a change of circumstances had occurred, such that a modification of the stipulation of settlement was necessary However, Supreme Court’s determination to modify the stipulation of settlement so as to, inter alia,  award the father sole legal and residential custody of the children, lacked a sound and substantial basis in the record  In pertinent part, the court gave undue weight to the parties’ religious upbringing clause, finding it to be a “paramount factor” in its custody determination. It held that when presented as an issue, religion may be considered as one of the factors in determining the best interest of a child, although it alone may not be the determinative factor. Clauses in custody agreements that provide for a specific religious upbringing for the children will only be enforced so long as the agreement is in the best interests of the children. It found that the mother had been the children’s primary caretaker since birth, and their emotional and intellectual development was closely tied to their relationship with her. The mother took care of the children’s physical and emotional needs both during and after the marriage, while the father consistently failed to fully exercise his visitation rights or fulfill his most basic financial obligations to the children after the parties’ separation. Aside from objecting to her decision to expose the children to views to which he personally objected, the father expressed no doubts whatsoever about the mother’s ability to care and provide for the children. The weight of the evidence established that awarding the father full legal and residential custody of the children with limited visitation to the mother would be harmful to the children’s relationship with her.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court improperly directed that enforcement of the parties’ stipulation of settlement which required the mother to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy during any period in which she has physical custody of the children and at any appearance at the children’s schools. The plain language of the parties’ agreement was “to give the children a Hasidic upbringing”. The parties’ agreement did not require the mother to practice any type of religion, to dress in any particular way, or to hide her views or identity from the children. Nor may the courts compel any person to adopt any particular religious lifestyle. At a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise” (Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. at 587). Thus, it held that  a religious upbringing clause should not, and cannot, be enforced to the extent that it violates a parent’s legitimate due process right to express oneself and live freely (see Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 574. The parties themselves agreed in the stipulation of settlement that they “shall [each] be free from interference, authority and control, direct or indirect, by the other” (emphasis added). The weight of the evidence did not support the conclusion that it was in the children’s best interests to have their mother categorically conceal the true nature of her feelings and beliefs from them at all times and in all respects, or to otherwise force her to adhere to practices and beliefs that she no longer shares. There was no indication or allegation that the mother’s feelings and beliefs were  not sincerely held, or that they were adopted for the purpose of subverting the religious upbringing clause, and there had been no showing that they are inherently harmful to the children’s well-being.

The evidence at the hearing established that the children  spent their entire lives in the Hasidic community, they attend Hasidic schools, and their extended families are Hasidic. The weight of the evidence demonstrated that it was in the children’s best interests to continue to permit the father to exercise final decision-making authority over the children’s education and to continue to permit him to require the children to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy while they are in his custody, or in the custody of a school that requires adherence to such practices. It directed the mother to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that the children’s appearance and conduct comply with the Hasidic religious requirements of the father and of the children’s schools while the children are in the physical custody of their father or their respective schools.