On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.
Before Judge Skillman, Wallace and Kleiner. The opinion of the court was delivered by Skillman, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by SKILLMAN, J.A.D.
This litigation involves competing claims to ownership of a residence located at 410 9th Street in Lakewood Township. Plaintiff Shirley Segal and her late husband Israel Segal, both Orthodox Jews, acquired this property in 1981. After Shirley*fn1 and her husband began experiencing marital difficulties, Shirley filed a
complaint for divorce in New York.*fn2 Around February 1, 1987, Shirley signed a marital settlement agreement, which provided, among other things, that the Lakewood property would be conveyed to her husband "forthwith." Shirley alleges that she signed this agreement under duress, the nature of which is discussed in greater detail later in this opinion. On March 25, 1987, Shirley and Israel signed a deed conveying the property to Israel's mother, defendant Lilly Segal. Shirley alleges that her signature on this deed also was secured under duress and that she believed at the time that she was conveying the property to Israel rather than to Lilly. Twelve days after Shirley and Israel signed this deed, Israel was murdered. On January 24, 1988, Shirley purportedly signed a second deed conveying the property to Lilly, which denominated Shirley as "Trustor" and Lilly as "Trustee." Shirley alleges that what purports to be her signature on this deed is a forgery. On January 25, 1988, Shirley executed a deed conveying the property to herself and her mother, plaintiff Erica Amsel.
Plaintiffs filed this suit on September 12, 1988, alleging that the deed which Shirley purportedly executed on January 24, 1988 had been forged by defendant Herman Segal and seeking to have that deed "declared null and void, and stricken from the records of the Ocean County Clerk." Plaintiffs also sought money damages. Lilly filed a counterclaim, alleging that she was the owner of the property by virtue of the deed Shirley and Israel executed on March 25, 1987.
At trial, Shirley testified that Israel had refused to consent to a Jewish ecclesiastical divorce known as a "Get," see Minkin v. Minkin, 180 N.J. Super. 248 (Ch. Div. 1981), unless she conveyed the Lakewood property to him, waived any claim to child support or alimony, disclaimed any interest in all marital assets including Israel's business, and in addition paid him $25,000.
She testified that a Get would not have been granted unless her husband consented and that if she failed to obtain a Get, she would be unable to remarry or even to date other men. Shirley's father, David Amsel, corroborated her testimony that Israel refused to consent to a Get unless Shirley acceded to all of his demands and Mr. Amsel agreed to support the children of the marriage and pay Israel $25,000. Shirley also testified that Herman Segal, Israel's brother, threatened her by firing three bullets into a picture on the wall of her house about a month before she signed the marital settlement agreement, and that Israel intimidated her by driving recklessly with their children and her in the car until she signed the agreement. She further testified that while the agreement was notarized by Herman, who was licensed to practice law in New York at the time, he was not in fact present when she signed the agreement. In addition, Rabbi Rottenberg, Shirley's representative at the "Beth Din" which granted the Get, testified that the rabbis had not undertaken to equitably distribute the parties' assets but had simply awarded Israel everything that he sought including the Lakewood property. Rabbi Rottenberg expressed the opinion that Shirley's consent to the marital agreement had been obtained through duress and that the agreement was not fair.
However, Rabbi Shapiro, another rabbi who participated in the Beth Din, denied that Israel refused to give his wife a Get unless she and her father consented to all his financial demands. Rabbi Shapiro also testified that the terms of the Get had been negotiated between the parties, in particular between David Amsel and Israel.
The trial court found that "extreme pressures" had been placed upon Shirley to accede to Israel's financial demands, including her need to obtain his consent to a Get and Herman's and Israel's threats. The court said that the agreement was subject to "possible challenge" because of these pressures, but that it was not "void on its face." The court further ...