Sunday, April 13, 2014

Battle Over Estate Raises Issues of Religious Marriage and Interfaith Relations

Estate of Chaim Weisberg, (NY Surr. Ct., April 8, 2014), is a suit over competing claims to administer an estate.  Its underlying narrative offers a fascinating glimpse into religious relationships in the United States.  Chaim Weisberg, who came from an Orthodox Jewish family and apparently continued to practice Judaism, died without a will on Aug. 29, 2012.  His mother (through her daughter as her designee) asserts that Weisberg was unmarried, while Jannah Geaney claims to be Weisberg's wife. Each claims to be the sole distributee of Weisberg's estate and filed competing petitions for administration.

In 2008, Weisberg apparently become romantically interested in Geaney and sought out an acquaintance who had been a tenant of his family for help in arranging an Islamic marriage to Geaney. This led to Wesiberg's converting to Islam at New York's second largest mosque (Madina Masjid), and his marriage to Geaney in a religious ceremony performed by Imam Yousuf Abdul Majid on June 21, 2008.  Apparently the parties did not take out a civil marriage license. Weisberg did not inform his family of the marriage ceremony until January 2012 when he told his sister.  By then the couple's relationship had become troubled. In February Weisberg's attorney drafted, but did not file, a divorce petition.  Instead both parties filed in Family Court for orders of protection against each other. By March 2012, though, the couple said they wanted to reconcile and withdrew the petitions. Less than six months later Weisberg was hospitalized and died.

Weisberg's mother (through her daughter) claimed in court that Weisberg's marriage ceremony was invalid as a matter of Isamic law.  The court ruled, however, that this is a matter of religious doctrine that may not be determined by a civil court.  However the court also refused to grant summary judgment to Geaney, saying:
A religious marriage in New York is valid if conducted in accord with the requirements of New York's Domestic Relations Law. In relevant part, this requires that the couple participate in a religious marriage ceremony, before a member of the clergy authorized to perform such a ceremony and at least one other witness, in which they solemnly declare that they take each other as husband and wife (DRL §§ 11, 12) .
Movant's proof is deficient in two respects. First, she produces no evidence as to the qualifications of Imam Majid to officiate at a marriage. The person officiating must be a "clergyman or minister" of a bona fide religion (DRL § 11[1]).... In this case, however, the record is completely silent as to the source of the imam's religious authority.
Second, the record does not contain a description of the ceremony sufficient to establish that the parties solemnized the marriage. DRL § 12 is explicit that while "[n]o particular form or ceremony is required ... the parties must solemnly declare in the presence of a clergyman and the attending witness or witnesses that they take each other as husband and wife."
The case now proceeds with discovery and trial.