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New York Trusts & Estates Litigation

Potential Court Approval of Religious Divorce Is Irrelevant to Right of Election

Posted in Right of Election

A recent decision emanating from the Kings County Surrogate’s Court provides another interesting application of the rules on entitlement to an elective share. In Matter of Atiram, 2009 NY Slip Op 52356(U), the petitioner sought a determination as to her right of election under EPTL 5-1.1A. She had married the decedent in 1952, but thirty-eight years later, the couple participated in a Jewish religious divorce under the supervision of the Rabbinical Alliance of America in New York. The Ministry of Religion of the State of Israel allegedly recognizes this type of divorce. New York, however, does not.

Pursuant to EPTL 5-1.2, a divorce disqualifies an individual from obtaining an elective share when “a final decree or judgment of divorce . . . recognized as valid under the laws of this state [that] was in effect when the deceased spouse died.”    New York does not recognize a rabbinical divorce as a valid termination of a marriage because the laws of this state require divorce by “due judicial proceedings.” In light of this rule, the objectant in Atiram sought a stay of the petitioner’s application pending an Israeli court’s determination of the validity of the divorce by the laws of that jurisdiction which, she argued, would qualify as the requisite “judicial proceeding” for New York. The Court disagreed, and opined that the outcome of the Israeli proceeding was irrelevant to the petitioner’s right of election.

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Specifically, the Court held that even if the Israeli court were to ultimately recognize that the decedent and the petitioner had been divorced under the laws of that country, such a determination would not have been in effect upon the decedent’s death. Therefore, because the marriage existed on the date of the decedent’s death, petitioner remained entitled to her elective share (see Matter of Atiram, citing Bennett v Thomas, 38 AD2d 682 [1st Dept 1971]; Matter of Berk, 20 Misc 3d 691 [Sur Ct, Kings County 2008]).  

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