The Bridge is a live talk show on ART America, airing every Thursday at 9 pm EST. Rajeh Saadeh was recently invited on as a special guest to dicuss family law and divorce.
Watch the conversation below or read the transcript.
Interview Transcription and Translation:
Interviewer: Divorce, as you just saw, occurs in 40-50% of marriages in America. Divorces between Arabs is as common to those numbers. So that we can understand the reason and causes of divorce and how the law handles it, I am proud to welcome Doctor Rajeh Saadeh, an lawyer. Welcome.
Interviewer: Rajeh has graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is licensed in New Jersey and New York and authorized to appear in federal court. This essentially means he is ready for anything. His specialty is in family issues.
Rajeh: Family law.
Interviewer: Family law. That includes divorce and whatever is related to divorce. Do you see this percentage as correct? 40-50% among people who are married, divorce?
Rajeh: Yeah. A lot of marriages these days do end in a divorce, for better or worse. They vary from year to year and statistic to statistic.
Interviewer: So let me start from the beginning. There are two parties seeking marriage; what steps should they take to avoid going through a divorce? Or damage their life later on?
Rajeh: Sometimes, there isn’t just one thing a person can do to prevent divorce. Sometimes there’s financial problems, or there’s stress with a sickness. Sometimes things happen in a marriage. The best way to prevent a divorce, as best you can, is to make sure you and your spouse have the same vision for the marriage. You don’t want to have a situation where you want five children and your spouse doesn’t want any. Then you get married, and there is a big disagreement in terms of that.
Interviewer: So in other words, there has to be a mutual understanding from both sides, on the various things in life. This should be before they reach the marriage.
Rajeh A. Saadeh: Absolutely.
Interviewer: Marriages in America seem a bit different than the ones in the Arab culture. In America, it is more of a business and contract. The Arab culture, with marriage, is more on the religious side, being done in a church or mosque. They don’t have the feeling that it is a hard business venture. Here, it seems more like a business. I have heard about prenuptial agreements. What do you think about that document? Should everyone have one before getting married?
Rajeh: Not everyone necessarily has to have a prenuptial or premarital agreement. That being said, if you want to establish and protect your assets and income in the future, in the event of a divorce, or if you want to be clear with your spouse to encourage a successful marriage, sometimes a prenuptial or premarital agreement is a good idea. There should be nothing wrong with discussing it with your spouse.
Interviewer: So it is a good idea. This agreement is with the man and woman before they get married. It is written up by a lawyer. It’s best to have this because you want to protect yourself. Nobody knows what will happen, and no one gets married already intending to divorce.
Rajeh: Right. Sometimes these things just happen, and the prenuptial agreement helps.
Interviewer: Interesting. Among the cases that you have in which Arab parties involved, what is the biggest reason you see them getting a divorce?
Rajeh: There is no real difference in why Arabs and non-Arabs get a divorce. In my experience, where I have represented dozens of Arabs and even more non-Arabs, the reasons are very similar.
Interviewer: Are the reason more financial based, or based on difference in how to act and traditions? For example, if the husband is from America but the wife is from a different country, or vice versa? Is there a dominating reason or pattern that you see?
Rajeh: It seems very similar. In both Arab and non-Arab cases, there can be domestic violence, where one spouse is abusive to the other spouse. It is not just men against women. Sometimes it is women against men. Sometimes, there are international issues involved. When you marry someone from an Arab country, the potential issues that arise are similar with marrying anyone from another country. No matter what your language is, the issue of divorce and reasons for it are similar.
Interviewer: Okay. In divorces involving children, the kids are sucked into the issue at hand. The children probably are the ones to suffer more than the mother or father even. Sometimes the divorce is better for the children and family in the long run. Is a lawyer needed in all divorce cases?
Rajeh: No, not all divorce cases need a lawyer. But, just because you do not need a lawyer doesn’t mean it is a good idea not to have one. A lot of the time, people don’t know what they are getting themselves into in a divorce. There is a saying: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” You want an expert on your side who can help you get through the divorce peacefully so that you can live the rest of your life in the best situation as possible.
Interviewer: We need a lawyer to help set us up for success after the divorce so that no party involved can go back on their word after it is already established in the court.
Interviewer: Some people think that having a lawyer in these matters is extra. It requires a lot of money. Maybe it’s possible that children have more rights to getting the money than a lawyer. What is the best way to retain a lawyer without spending so much money?
Rajeh: The easiest way to reduce the cost of a divorce is to be reasonable in all of your positions. If you are getting a divorce, there are things that you will be responsible for and realities that you will have to live with. For example, if you have children, you will not spend 100% of your time with the children anymore. Some of that time will be spent with the other parent. You have to live with that reality. If you do not, and you want your lawyer to fight for it, he or she will do that. But the likelihood that you will have all of the time with the children, while the other parent gets nothing, is close to 0%. There is a cost that comes with fighting. Sometimes, the cost that is incurred from the other party’s fees can be passed on to you if the judge rules that way.
Interviewer: If both parties work, what is the defining factor that decides where the children will live, and with whom?
Rajeh: The law treats both parents the same. It is not about what is best for the mother or father, but rather what is best for the child or children involved. That is what the law says. Sometimes, in practice, people are accustomed to the women receiving primary custody more often than the father. Whether it is a male or female judge, people are just used to this being the case. Statistics have backed this perception, in that mothers get primary custody more often than both 50/50 custody, or fathers having primary custody.
Interviewer: In America, it seems like women get more rights than the men. If there is an argument, women can get police involved more often and are sympathized more in that way. We do not hear very often in that the man is calling the police because of the woman. We hear the opposite more often, and then the police come and take the man from the house or something of that nature. Does the law protect a woman’s position more than a man’s?
Rajeh: On paper, it does not; In practice, it does. Domestic violence victims are often times women, rather than men. The people who get custody of children are women more than men. So, in practice, it does seem like women have more rights and advantages in family law, but on paper with the way the law is written, it is more equal.
Interviewer: What usually happens is the children stay in the custody of the mother. Moving on, if there are assets from either party, how does it get divided? Let’s say they had two kids. Does everything get divided based on whose name it’s under? Or whoever gets custody of the children get more rights to the assets?
Rajeh: It depends on the state. Here’s an example: New Jersey and New York are two states where the property and debts are divided between the husband and wife. It doesn’t have to be 50/50.
Interviewer: How come in New York and New Jersey they combine all the assets and debt, and divide it so it does not have to be 50/50? What is it based on that makes it, for example, 35/65?
Rajeh: There are a list of factors. If a judge were to decide the case, rather than the husband and wife coming to an agreement, the judge would have to consider all assets that were marital. That means nothing that was gifted, inherited, or premarital. Marital assets all need to be valued and identified. After that, the assets are distributed based on factors that the judge has to consider. One factor, which you mentioned, is who is going to be the primary parent for the children. If there is a house, odds are that the house will remain with the parent who has the children. That doesn’t mean the other parent loses their share of the house. Instead, they may get more of a share in some other asset.
Interviewer: So then the parent who has the child will have a higher percentage of that?
Rajeh: For the home, but that is not for all the assets.
Interviewer: The lawyer can protect the business in the case of divorce. Okay so let’s say the husband and wife agree to terms and bring it to the judge. Can the judge disagree with the terms that the two parties agreed upon?
Rajeh: It almost never happens, but the judge can disagree. When that does happen, it frequently involves the children.
Interviewer: This is in New York and New Jersey. So that means in Texas, California, and Florida, the laws are different?
Rajeh: Yes. Family law, in America, is decided on a state-by-state basis. The family law in New Jersey is different than the family law in New York, is different from the family law in California. Some states have similar laws from state to state. New York and New Jersey family law is largely similar. But California, for example, has a very different model. The most important difference being the distribution of property. In New York and New Jersey, you have a list of factors to consider in deciding how much to give husband and wife. In California, it’s a different type of law in that all marital assets and debts are divided equally.
Interviewer: Any asset that was there before the marriage, doesn’t matter. Anything that was an asset during the marriage, matters in dividing them.
Interviewer: Okay. If the parties have assets that are not in America, how do they divide those? Do the same rules apply even though the assets are not here?
Rajeh: If those assets are marital, even if they are overseas, are still divided in the marriage. In the divorce, it is difficult for a judge in America to tell a judge in another country or require the sale of something overseas. But, the decision has still been made here. So, if a person is required to give the other party the value of that item, and they do not, then the judge can make them do so, perhaps by giving the receiving party more money, or putting the party in jail until that asset has been sold.
Interviewer: If the husband works, but the woman doesn’t work and they have no kids, does she still get some of his income?
Rajeh: Absolutely. Even if there are kids involved, there is something called alimony. Alimony is support for the wife or the husband. Usually it is the wife, because the husband often times makes more than the wife.
Interviewer: Is alimony only for a specific amount of time?
Rajeh: It depends on a state-by-state basis. In New Jersey, alimony can be open durational, which means the length of alimony is not set or definite. It can go on for life, unless something changes. Now some other states have a set limit for time and how much alimony can be paid. So that is state by state.
Interviewer: So in New York and New Jersey, what is the limit?
Rajeh: In both New York and New Jersey, it can be open durational.
Interviewer: It can go on for 20 years?
Rajeh: It can be even longer. But it can also be a lot shorter. Usually the most important factor is the length of the marriage. The longer the marriage, that usually means the longer the alimony.
Interviewer: Okay. How about if the spouses are married in another country, and there is no contract in America saying they are married. Would they be subject to the same laws?
Rajeh: Yes, they would be the same laws because if you are married lawfully anywhere, so long as the marriage was lawful, you care considered married everywhere. So, if you come here from overseas, and you were married overseas, then you are treated as married here. You do not need papers here as well.
Interviewer: All of this applies only if you are married with a contract. What if you are not married with a contract?
Rajeh: What you are describing is religious marriage without the legal component. In New York and New Jersey, if you are not married with a contract, then you are not legally married. Under the law, you are not married.
Interviewer: So they consider it like a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship, so there are different rights?
Rajeh: Absolutely. There are no protections as far as property rights or alimony. Sometimes in our (Muslim and Arab) community, they do that.
Interviewer: Going back to the children. Does the opinion of the child matter, if they want to stay with the mother or father?
Rajeh: It depends how old the child is. The older the child is, the more likely it is that they will have a preference to whom they will live with primarily after the separation.
Interviewer: The judge can ask the child who they want to live with?
Rajeh: It’s a factor that the judge will consider, but the child does not decide who they will stay with. If mom and dad cannot agree, and the child is old enough, like 16 years old, then the child should have a say in who they prefer and the judge would hear them out.
Interviewer: Not a 10 or 11 year old?
Rajeh: Sometimes it can be a 10 or 11 year old, but their opinion isn’t as valued as that of a 16 year old. You wouldn’t ask a 2 or 3 year old for their opinion.
Interviewer: Will one of the parents be responsible for the kids? Up to what age does that continue?
Rajeh: Child support. Both parents have a responsibility to support the child. In some states, child support stops when the child turns 18. In New Jersey, the law recently changed. Before February of last year, the law said child support was when a child was emancipated. That means the child is no longer under the influence of the parents. One parent would be paying child support for the child. The law now states child support terminates no later than age 22. Some other states can have child support continue longer.
Interviewer: Is there a difference with boy or girl?
Rajeh: In terms of child support, no. The amount of child support does not depend on the gender of a child.
Interviewer: Is New York still 21?
Rajeh: I believe New York is the early 20’s. Now, child support usually continues while a child is in college, or if the child, God forbid, has special needs or is disabled. These factors usually make child support continue.
Interviewer: Okay. This is very valuable information. It is important to understand these things in order to make an informed choice before we continue seeking a divorce. But it does happen, and it’s a big business.
Rajeh: It is a growing business and it is recession proof. No matter what the market is, there will always be divorce and marriages.
Interviewer: What do you advise to the youth who are looking to get married? You have a lot of cases, so what should they consider before they commit to this lifetime contract?
Rajeh: I think the most important thing you can do for yourself and your family, is to always look to respect yourself and your spouse. A marriage is not a perfect situation. It will not always be peaceful, but as long as you respect one another, then your likelihood for a successful marriage is as high as anyone else can have.
Interviewer: I really appreciate that. Rajeh told me earlier that his kids speak better Arabic than he does. I welcome him to come back and hope he responds in Arabic to me. He speaks Arabic well, but we need to make him more comfortable speaking publicly in Arabic for next time. I wish your children health, and thank you again for joining us.
Rajeh: Thank you, and thank you for having me.