I Made a Promise to My Spouse as Part of a Religious Marriage Ceremony. Can the Maryland Courts Order Performance of that Promise?

Even in this country where many prize the “separation of church and state,” there are times where religion and secular law unavoidably intermingle. Marriage is often one of those. You and your spouse’s process of becoming one married couple is a civil legal one but, for many, it’s a religious one, as well. This, of course, can lead to other marriage-related overlaps between religious and secular law, and lead you to wonder… What happens to those agreements I made as part of my faith’s pre-marital processes or wedding ceremony – are they enforceable by the civil courts? As with any question you have about an agreement tied to your impending marriage, you should make sure you consult a knowledgeable Maryland family law attorney before going through with the agreement.

For example, in Islam, the groom makes a payment, called a mahr, to the bride at the time of their Islamic marriage ceremony. A mahr is mandatory for all Islamic marriages and the mahr must be specifically stated at the time of the couple’s marriage. The property included in a mahr can be many things, such as jewelry, furniture, a house, land or cash.

So, can the Maryland courts enforce the promises a husband made about a mahr in his Islamic marriage ceremony? That question recently made its way to the Court of Special Appeals in Maryland, where that court explained that some mahr promises are enforceable by Maryland civil courts and some are not.

Basically, the standard that a Maryland court will analyze in order to determine whether or not such a promise is enforceable is the same standard that Maryland courts use to assess the enforceability of any other contract between parties who are in a confidential relationship. An agreement about a mahr, even though made within the procedural obligations of Islam, can be enforced if it has all the hallmarks of a valid contract established by Maryland law.

That means that a court cannot order performance if the mahr agreement was the result of “fraud, duress, coercion, mistake, undue influence, or a party’s incompetence.” If there was bad faith by one or both parties or if the terms of the agreement were unconscionable at the time the couple entered into the agreement, then the agreement is not enforceable. If there was “an ‘overreaching,’ that is, whether in the atmosphere and environment of the confidential relationship there was unfairness or inequity in the result,” then a Maryland judge cannot order performance.

If, however, both spouses-to-be acted in good faith, there was nothing unconscionable in the terms, there was no fraud/duress/coercion, no one was mentally incompetent and there was no overreaching, then the Maryland courts may, in fact, enter orders requiring a spouse to fulfill his mahr obligations that he promised on the occasion of his marriage.

What you may take away from this is that, just because the things you promised were made as part of a religious rite or ceremony, don’t think that the secular courts of Maryland automatically cannot enforce those promises. Make sure you have all the legal knowledge you need before you promise anything. Consult experienced Maryland family law attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has spent many years helping spouses and spouses-to-be to resolve their family law disputes. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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