The Legal Effect that the Agreements You Made in Your Religious Marriage Ceremony Will — and Won’t — Have on Your Maryland Divorce

One of the things that makes divorce different than many other legal matters is something fundamental to many marriages. For lots of people, marriage (and, by extension, divorce) is a place where the secular and the sacred meet… where man’s laws intersect with God’s laws. Whatever your religion teaches about marriage and/or divorce, it is vitally important, if you are going through a divorce in Maryland, to understand how the civil laws of Maryland will view your situation. To get the answers about these kinds of issues, as well all the other issues your divorce case presents, look to an experienced Maryland family law attorney, who can offer you customized advice based on your specific situation.

Last year, this blog discussed a case involving two Islamic couples divorcing in Maryland. Both that case and a much newer divorce case recently decided by the Court of Special Appeals are illustrative of the problems that can arise for these couples in terms of interpreting the agreements they made during their religious marriage.

If you are someone going through a Maryland divorce after having gone through an Islamic marriage process (or some other religious marriage process with similar procedures), the most important thing to understand is not how your religion views those marital processes, but how the Maryland courts will see them.

This recent case, as with the case from 2020, involved the significance of the mahr (sometimes spelled mehr) within an Islamic marriage. Mahr is the contractual obligation the groom enters into with the bride on the occasion of their marriage. The mahr, which is a requirement in Islam, comes in two parts: the first part is an immediate gift to the wife, and the second part is a sum of money or property that the wife receives upon the husband’s death or the couple’s divorce.

So what’s the significance of the mahr under Maryland law? Is it the equivalent of a prenuptial agreement that, if the husband performs as promised, prevents the wife from pursuing a court-ordered equitable distribution of marital property?

The Maryland courts have been fairly consistent in ruling that, generally, it is not. Even though the agreement was created under the auspices of Sharia (Islamic law,) the civil courts in Maryland will resolve your divorce litigation using only principles of Maryland contract law.

In the most recent case, the mahr was a sum of $10,000 cash. When the couple divorced, the husband attempted to argue that this mahr agreement was a valid prenuptial agreement and the wife was entitled only to the $10,000 payment and the assets that were in her name.

No clear proof of relinquishment of equitable distribution rights

The courts rejected this interpretation. Under Maryland law, you need several things to establish the existence of a valid contract. You need proof of an offer, acceptance of that offer and a “meeting of the minds” about the terms of the agreement. In this case, there wasn’t the necessary proof required to show that the husband offered the wife the sum of $10,000 in exchange for her relinquishing her equitable distribution rights in a divorce action, and that the wife had accepted that offer. Because there wasn’t proof that the wife had contractually signed away her right to receive an equitable distribution, the court refused to enforce the mahr agreement as such.

This husband was hampered by the fact that he did not have a copy of the mahr agreement. Even if he had, it might not have helped. Inevitably, the mahr agreement likely would have said nothing about marital property or equitable distribution rights, because those things don’t exist under Islamic law.

So, what does all that tell us? Most clearly, it says that, if you are undergoing an Islamic religious marriage, or any other religious marriage with similar procedures, the agreements you create in that process may not be enforceable in your Maryland divorce. If you desire to create a prenuptial agreement, take the extra time and effort to work with a skilled Maryland attorney and create a separate prenuptial agreement that you can be confident will comply with Maryland law.

Whether you need answers about a prenuptial agreement, the impact of your religious marriage upon your civil divorce or something else, count on the knowledgeable Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to provide you with the clear answers and advice you need, along with the reliable advocacy you deserve. To learn more about how we can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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