What happens when cultural and religious traditions clash with the presumptions underlying New York’s Equitable Distribution Law, negating the concept that a marriage is an economic partnership? To what extent should those traditions impact New York Law affecting long-term marriages?
In the March, 2017 case, Yehia v. Goma, the parties had been married in 1977 in Egypt in both civil and religious ceremonies, and resided in New York since 1992, (although the wife returned to Egypt between 2008 until 2011). They had three adult children.
During the trial, the parties entered into two stipulations: one resolving the isues of properties held in Egypt; the second addressing the division of the sale proceeds of the marital residence in New York, and the wife’s claim for counsel fees. As a result of the two stipulations, the issues left open for decision included equitable distribution of pension and 401(k) Plan assets, maintenance, and credits against Equitable Distribution.
Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Victor G. Grossman recognized that a significant issue affecting the claims of credits arises from how the parties managed their economic spheres during the marriage. He noted that the parties both remained Egyptian citizens and had led a devout life and marriage in accordance with Islamic Law. Both parties’ actions had been consistent with their religious and/or cultural traditions.
The husband testified that, according to the tenets of Islamic faith, he was fully responsible to satisfy all the family’s needs, and once he did so, the remainder of his income was his. At the same time, whatever the wife earned, according to the Islamic faith, was hers, and she had no obligation to contribute her earnings to the marriage. Justice Grossman found that these beliefs guided their economic activities.
In fact, during the marriage, the wife maintained several bank accounts in her name only, both in the United States and at least two accounts in Egypt. However, Justice Grossman found the wife was significantly less than candid in disclosing information and particular transactions “as if she did not want the Court to know about the various accounts.” The husband also maintained separate accounts.
For the most part, the parties maintained an independent economic existence. However, there was no dispute that the husband had paid the family’s housing obligations without contribution from the wife and in accordance with his Islamic teachings.
The wife, who had been working as a teacher in Egypt during 1986-1987, also taught in the New York. Both parties worked full time. In 2008, the wife, began receiving her pension, depositing the proceeds into her own account.
Justice Grossman noted the principles underlying equitable distribution.
A marriage is, among other things, an economic partnership to which both parties contribute as “spouse, parent, wage earner or homemaker.”
However, the equitable distribution of marital assets must be based on the circumstances of the particular case and the consideration of a number of statutory factors.
Modern marriage should be viewed as a partnership of co-equals. Upon the dissolution of a marriage there should be an equitable distribution of all family assets accumulated during the marriage and maintenance should rest on the economic basis of reasonable needs and the ability to pay. From this point of view, the contributions of each partner to the marriage should ordinarily be regarded as equal, and there should be an equal division of family assets, unless such a division would be inequitable under the circumstances of the particular case.
Here, there was no dispute that the husband financially supported the parties during the marriage, and the wife obtained a Master’s degree, which was also paid for by the husband. There was “scant evidence” of the wife’s to the “economic partnership.” There was undisputed evidence of the wife’s role as homemaker and caretaker of the parties’ young children while she remained in Egypt with the children, and the husband traveled to and from the United States between 1989 and 1992.
However, the division of the marital estate is not dependent on the size of the economic contribution. Each spouse’s contribution need not be identical, or equal, to fashion an equitable distribution. Indeed, quantifying contributions, other than economic, is subjective, at best, and far from uniform.
Justice Grossman held that there must also be recognition of the parties’ religious and cultural background, as those factors affected their mutual understanding of the estate being created. Although this factor is not among the specific enumerated factors found in DRL §236(B)(5)(d), the Court found consideration of it appropriate within “any other factor the court shall expressly find to be just and proper.” (DRL §236(B)(5)(d)(14)). There is an inequitable component where a spouse makes less than a significant economic contribution to the marriage pursuant to the parties’ cultural traditions, while retaining an estate created during the marriage and simultaneously seeking an equal distribution of the marital estate in accordance with New York law. While the parties’ roles in their marriage should not be second-guessed by negating the contribution of a spouse, the basis for those roles should not be ignored in fashioning an equitable distribution of the marital estate where both parties assented to them.
In short, there was little or no evidence of an “economic partnership.”
Both parties acted in accordance with the dictates of their faith and cultural traditions in a way that conflicts with New York’s Equitable Distribution Law. They did so from the time they married, and they retained their assets without regard to an “economic partnership” or “marital assets.”
Here, based on these unique circumstances, an unequal distribution of the marital estate, where there were significant unequal contributions to the marriage, was appropriate. Justice Grossman then awarded the wife $30,000.00 as “an appropriate award reflecting the de minimus, if any, contributions” made by the wife to the marital estate. The Court also awarded the wife maintenance in the amount of $800.00 per month until she reached her 67th birthday.
Comment: To what extent, if any, should religious or cultural traditions, inconsistent with civil law presumption be allowed to affect civil law decisions? Here, Justice Grossman did seem to be affected by the wife’s lack of candor, and the assets she had secured for herself during the marriage, more secular factors that often influence distributive awards. What would be the effect of an honored religious or cultural tradition that prohibited a wife from acquiring any property in her own name? What would be the effect of a tradition embodied in a marriage contract entered outside the United States that prohibited any economic relief? Allowing religious and cultural traditions to influence civil law in a melting pot society seems to be inserting a very dangerous “other” factor into the Equitable Distribution Law.