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Dowries In the Modern Age: What Happens to an Islamic Mahr, Mehrieh, Mehr, or Dowry, During a Maryland Divorce: Part 1

A common question in many Maryland divorce cases involving clients of the Islamic faith is, what happens to my Islamic Mahr, Mehrieh, Mehr (a.k.a, dowry) during my Maryland divorce?

Many immigrants who live in Maryland wed overseas in their home countries. The Middle Eastern immigrants usually wed under the Islamic tradition. In the Islamic tradition, at the time of marriage, the couple or the couple’s family negotiate what is called the Mahr, Mehrieh, Mehr, most commonly known to Americans as a dowry, at the time of marriage.

A dowry in the Muslim faith is a gift, or a promise of a gift, to the wife by the husband. It is negotiated shortly before the couple’s marriage and is often in written form. It is often in the form of gold coins, cash or land. It is not given to the wife at the time of the marriage, but the wife has the right to ask for it at any time during the marriage or upon the dissolution of the marriage.

In many Middle Eastern countries,  the rights of women upon marriage breakdown are much fewer than those of men. Upon dissolution of the marriage, the wife often receives little from the division of family assets and often little to no spousal support.  The dowry  serves as a form of security or money the wife can  use in the future for her own benefit upon marriage breakdown. Additionally, in many Middle Eastern countries, it is common that only the husband can initiate and file for divorce.  The exception to this general rule allows a wife to file for divorce only when  the husband physically or mentally abuses her or is addicted to alcohol or drugs. In situations where the wife wants to divorce the husband for reasons other than those listed above, such as incompatibility (i.e., “irreconcilable differences”), the wife can use her dowry to negotiate a divorce. This means that the wife can forgive or waive her dowry in return for the husband’s permission to divorce. So, the dowry is not merely a gift, has a different purpose overseas, and is used in ways which cannot be used in Maryland or other U.S. States.

The dowry is often a large amount to show the love, affection, and commitment of the groom to the bride at the beginning of the marriage. The dowry is promised to the wife at the beginning of marriage regardless of whether the husband actually has or is going to be able to have the dowry at the time the wife asks for it, or at the time of marriage breakdown. Needless to say, it creates difficulties, unrealistic expectations and legal ramifications for the husband if he is not able to pay it upon the wife’s request.  For instance, an immigrant from Iran, who promised his wife 70 gold coins at the time of the marriage who then immigrated to the United States and now works a blue color job cannot possibly afford to pay the wife’s dowry.

These problems compound when the wife decides to ask for her dowry from the husband at the time of marriage breakdown in Maryland. The wife, on top of often having a default entitlement to half (50%) of the family assets (in cases of long term marriages), spousal support or possibly child support, will ask for her dowry. This often means that the husband would receive less than 50% or sometimes none of the family assets he would otherwise be entitled to receive under Maryland family law.

Numerous problematic situations can arise concerning the Mehr. For example, sometimes the amount of dowry is larger than the entire of pool of family assets; sometimes the amount of dowry is not even negotiated by the husband and wife, but by their families; sometimes the dowry is not in written form, leading to disputes as to what exactly is owed; sometimes it is a ploy for the wife to extort the husband by marrying him; or sometimes the dowry is agreed to 20 or 30 years before divorce when the husband’s or familial financial situation is significantly different. The problems are vast and never ending.

Maryland courts often struggle to determine whether they should respect religious traditions of a family or to create a fair outcome with regards family assets and obligations of spouses towards one another upon marriage breakdown.

In Part 2 of this blog post, I will discuss the ways in which Maryland or other U.S. courts have dealt with the dowry at the time of marriage breakdown.

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