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December 6, 2012 5:11 pm

When the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Parents are Divorced

avatar by Tanya Helfand

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Jewish boy reads Bar Mitzvah. Photo: Peter van der Sluijs.

Although festive and meaningful events, bar mitzvahs, like weddings, are always full of anxiety and stress. Even more so when the parents of the child are divorced!

Whether lavish or simple, the bar or bat mitzvah event requires an investment of time and money by the parents, and studying and preparation by the child.

When the parents are divorced there are additional issues which may arise:

  1. Who is paying for Hebrew school and bar mitzvah preparation?
  2. Who will get aliyahs?
  3. How expensive should the affair be? Catering? Number of attendees?  Invitations?  Entertainment?
  4. Where will the event be held?  Do each of the parents belong to a separate temple?
  5. Will both parents attend?  If one refuses to come, should he/she have to pay for the event?

A happy event for a child and family can quickly turn difficult.

In the State of New Jersey, the Court has broad discretion to award indirect child support related relief, including for bar and bat mitzvahs. The focus is always the best interest of the child and the parent’s financial ability to pay. The Court would look to determine if, where the parties still married, there would have been a bar/bat mitzvah and at what expense.

In a 2010 Appellate case in New Jersey, the parties went to court on several issues including alimony, counsel fees, future college expenses and bar mitzvah expenditures.  The dad paid $220,000 on his own for the bar mitzvah.  The lower Court commented that this should be considered when looking at the parent’s future responsibility for the child’s educational expenses and the parties’ responsibilities.  The Appellate Division said the college education issue was not before the Court yet, so Dad’s expenditure could not yet be “considered with reference to other financial obligations.”

In New York there is an additional case, which I find interesting and thoughtful.  Mom made an application to the Court to require dad to pay $5,000.00 to cover the cost of the son’s bar mitzvah, but Dad said it was unconstitutional for a Court to order his contribution to a religious event. The Court in its decisions described the history and meaning of the bar mitzvah:

“In latter years, the celebration portion of the ceremony has been augmented by many Jewish families in a large and ostentatious manner at considerable expense.  This practice is not looked upon with favor by the Rabbinate, who argue that parents should emphasize the sanctity of the occasion and should not demean it by undue emphasis in the societal aspects of the celebration. While Kiddish and the sharing of a festive light meal are customs of long standing, ostentatious and lavish display should be avoided.”

The Court determined that the two Jewish parents would have had a bar mitzvah celebration for their son if they were still happily married, so the Court was not imposing a religious requirement which would not have happened under happier circumstances, when it required the father to contribute.

As I always like to advise in all of my divorce and post-judgment cases, if you can make a decision about your life or your children’s lives without the input of a judge you are much better off.  Also, the cost of litigation will certainly cut into the funds available for the bar/bat mitzvah and the other needs of the children.

If divorcing parties litigate issues of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they might get a Jewish Judge or they might get someone who has little to no knowledge of the event and tradition, resulting in a way off base decision.  In the prior case, Mom asked for $5,000.00.  Dad offered $50.00.  The Court awarded $1,000.00.  Was this worth the cost to litigate?

If people are divorcing and there will be future Bar/Bat Mitzvah expenses, to me it makes sense to contemplate this as specifically as possible in a Property Settlement Agreement. Issues to be addressed include cost and agreement on religious school education, temple dues, arrangements regarding transporting children to religious education, parameters of the event and budget.

I am divorced myself and can certainly sympathize with the issues clients are experiencing.  For my son’s bar mitzvah we planned a Havdalah service that was supposed to be followed by a small party outside the temple with kid’s activities and a dinner for close friends and family.  But Hurricane Sandy flooded our venue a few days before and I had to change the plans.  I made a nicer dinner at temple and a kid’s sports day on Sunday.  The cost was pretty much the same and everyone was helpful.  And the cost of the party did not cut into our allocation for my son’s future education.

Tanya N. Helfand has been practicing family law for over 20 years.  She litigates, mediates, and provides collaborative matrimonial services. She can be reached at tanyah@tanyahelfand.com.

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