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The Ketuba is written in Aramaic, so it might not be easily understood by an English-speaking judge; however, it is still a contract. On the other hand, the ketuba is not (necessarily?) signed by either party to the marriage, and only by a couple of witnesses.

If a couple gets divorced, could the woman sue the man in an American court for her ketuba?

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    why would there be a problem transcribing an English version? Under my chupah, we read both the Aramaic and the literal English text as well. Sure, it wasn't romantic but we did it. – rosends Aug 7 '12 at 16:36
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    CYLL........... – Shmuel Brin Aug 7 '12 at 17:03
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    Daniel, when you ask "Is there any problem", do you mean a problem in halacha? Then that sounds like a very very different question from the first (which is a question of American law) and should IMO be split off as a separate question. – msh210 Aug 7 '12 at 18:52
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Quick answer: Yes and no. Any religious or doctrinal aspects of a kesubah itself cannot be enforced under American laws because of Constitutional issues involving the free exercise and establishment clauses to the First Amendment. However, courts have and can enforce strictly secular sections of kesubahs or separate secular agreements between a Jewish couple provided that the court is not asked to interpret Jewish law or do the work of the Jewish court. E.g. a court can't force a husband to give his wife a get. Nor can it enforce payment terms under a kesubah. But, many state courts have ruled that if courts can apply neutral areas of law to the issue, rather than intepreting religious doctrine, then courts have jurisdictin to, or example, enforce a pre-nuptual agreement that requires a husband and wife to seek mediation through a beis din, or force the husband to pay $100 per month in child support for each month he fails to appear before the beis din.

Background: Courts have interpreted the First Amendment broadly to severely circumscribe the role that civil courts may play in resolving disputes concerning issues of religious doctrine and practice. E.g. DeCorso v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc., 829 A.2d 38 (Conn. App.), cert. denied, 837 A.2d 805 (Conn. 2003). By contrast, exercise of governmental authority is permissible if it (1) has a secular purpose, (2) neither inhibits nor advances religion as its primary effect and (3) does not create excessive entanglement between church and state. Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971).

Freedom of religion is guaranteed not only to individuals but also to churches, and church organizations, which have “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).

Connecticut and New Jersey courts have found that they could enforce a provision under Moslem law where couples in Iran had entered into prenuptual agreements calling for the husband to give the wife a mahr -- a large amount of money -- at the wedding, and additional sums during the marriage. Since no money was paid at either times, the wives in both cases sued for the promised funds after the divorce, and the courts found they could resolve the issues using neutral legal principles. Lashgari v. Lashgari, 496 A.2d 491 (Conn. 1985); Odatalla v. Odatalla, 810 A.2d 93 (N.J.Super. 2002).

In 1926, a New York Appellate Division court upheld the trial court's jurisdiction to enforce a kesubah's provision that the wife could not be evicted from her home by her step-children following the death of her husband. Hurwitz v. Hurwitz, 216 A.D. 362 (N.Y. App. Div. 2d 1926). Also, the case of Avitzur v. Avitzur, 446 N.E .2d 136 (N.Y.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 817, 104 S.Ct. 76 (1983), the court held that it had jurisdiction to rule on secular sections of a kesubah.

Since then, the Rabbinical Council of America and other rabbinic organizations have urged couples to enter into pre-nuptual agreements which require, in the event the couple files for divorce in secular court, that they agree to mandatory arbitration before an Orthodox Jewish beis din (which may require the husband to provide his wife with a get (Jewish divorce decree). Such contracts have been upheld in Connecticut, Illinois, California, Georgia, Maryland and Colorado. Cites available upon request.

  • And this applies even though only witnesses, and neither the bride nor the groom, actually sign the ketuba? – Daniel Mar 20 '13 at 5:51
  • @Daniel yes, because agents can sign a contract for you. The pre-nups going around now are signed by the bride and groom, however. – Bruce James Mar 20 '13 at 9:01
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R' Michael Broyde-- in a 2004 article titled "The Ketubah in America: Its Value in Dollars, its Significance in Halacha and its Enforceability in American Law"-- seems to say no:
(bolding for emphasis)

The enforceability in American law of the ketubah payment is a matter that has rarely been litigated, although there is not a single case where a court has enforced the ketubah obligation to mandate a payment. Consider for example in 1974 a widow tried to collect the amount of her husband’s ketubah and claimed that the ketubah superseded her prior waver of any future claims pursuant to a pre-nuptial agreement between herself and her husband. The ketubah had been signed after the pre-nuptial agreement, and thus, if it were a valid contract, would have superseded it. In denying her motion, the New York Supreme Court concluded that “even for the observant and Orthodox, the ketubah has become more a matter of form and a ceremonial document than a legal obligation.

Although the New York Court of Appeals, in a subsequent case, enforced a provision of the ketubah pursuant to which the parties agreed to arbitrate future marital disputes before a bet din, the court did not revisit the issue of the enforceability of the financial obligations included in the ketubah. While it is true that in dicta, an Arizona court suggested that financial obligations described in a ketubah could perhaps be enforceable if described with sufficient specificity, the practice has never been to seek to conform the text of the Ketubah to the contract requirements of American law. The description of the financial obligations — in zuzim and zekukim, which require determinations of Jewish law to ascertain the proper value — are not be considered sufficiently specific to be enforceable. So too the absence of an English text (where either the husband or wife are not fluent in Aramaic and Hebrew) and the absence of signatures of the husband and wife, would seem to make the ketubah void as a contract in American law.

Worth checking out the original article to see the exact legal cases cited in the footnotes.

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