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Jewish Divorce: Marital Assets & Alimony

In the United States, though each state laws differ, there are two distinct standards used to divide the marital assets after a divorce.  There is equitable distribution and community property. With equitable distribution which is present in 41 states, the court decides what is fair in the distribution of the marital assets. In the 9 states that follow the standard of community property, all marital assets and debts are split 50-50 among the divorcing couple.  In Jewish Law a husband owns all of his wife's property, with one exception. During her lifetime a married woman retains ownership of any property she brought to the marriage. However, her husband has the right to manage the property and to enjoy any profits from it. After the women dies the husband owns the property outright. 

When a couple divorces a husband is not mandated by Halacha to make any financial provisions for his wife.  In the divorce dispute the Beth Din decides what financial award the wife gets, and since the judges are not compelled by a Halachic directive, they may not always grant the wife a fair settlement.  This is why the Babylonian elders felt compelled to institute the Ketubah, a religious marriage document, which spelled out the financial obligations by the husband should he leave his wife due to divorce, death or desertion. They wanted to protect the woman from being discarded by her husband without providing for her livelihood.  The basic clause in the Ketubah is the Mohar or set amount of money promised by the groom to be given to the bride. Originally it was to be given to the father of the bride, and later it was added to the dowry. The great Talmudic scholar, during the second temple era, Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach reformed the Ketubah and ruled that the Mohar be paid only upon divorce.  This was instituted as deterrent for divorce that could be previously flippantly given without thought.  The Mohar also left the woman in a secure financial position during the divorce, allowing her time to remarry without the burden of earning her livelihood. At present time many people follow the Talmudic text of the Ketubah and enumerate the financial obligations as 200 silver zuzim or "pieces of pure silver”. The rabbis had fixed that minimum amount for the Mohar, to ensure that event the very poor women would be adequately protected in case of divorce. However, Ketubot written at Israeli weddings often mention units of real currency. The Ketubah includes a lien on the groom’s property that secures the satisfaction of the Mohar.  This personally obligates the groom so that not only his real estate property is mortgaged but so are all his personal assets affected.

In the modern age many Conservative Jews found the traditional Ketubah text unfavorable because of its portrayal of men as the masters of the marriage. The Conservative rabbis permit specific changes to be made to the Ketubah to deem it more egalitarian. Traditional text of the Ketubah enumerate the obligations of the man to the wife, while the egalitarian Ketubah will have the couple both pledge support for each other.  Brief mention of financial pledges continues to be included in the traditional Conservative text.

Another change that was made to the traditional Ketubah was the addition of the Lieberman clause. In the 1950’s the Conservative movement convened to try to deal with the issue of Agunah.  Saul Lieberman a Talmudic scholar developed a clause to be added to the Ketubah. The Lieberman clause which is basically an arbitration agreement, stipulates that upon dissolution of the marriage and refusal of the husband to grant a Get, the couple had to appear before a rabbinic court authorized by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. This Beit Din would issue directives, which would include an order for the husband to give the wife a Get, that the couple was mandated to heed.

The Lieberman clause had not garnered much success for women trying to obtain a Get. This is because most U.S. state courts would not accept cases that relied on the Lieberman clause claiming it violated the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. 

The Conservative movement therefore created a new clause that is separate from the Ketubah that is basically a prenuptial agreement which places a condition on the marriage. The groom signs a statement declaring that should he fail to grant his wife a get after six months of the civil divorce the marriage would be considered invalid.


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