California Family Code vs Religious Agreements

In 2000, Husband [H] and Wife [W] were married in an Islamic wedding ceremony in Michigan. At the time of their marriage H and W signed a mahr agreement. The agreement entitled W to five gold coins at the time of their marriage, and a copy of the Quran if the couple divorced. (A mahr agreement “is an agreement based on Islamic law under which a husband agrees to pay a dowry to his wife.”)

In 2002, the couple had a child in 2002, and another in 2005. Later they moved from Michigan to California.

In March of 2012, W petitioned for divorce. Originally H filed a response to W’s petition, but later changed his response to request an annulment based on fraud. H contended that W induced H into marrying him by signing the mahr agreement, knowing that H would not marry her if she did not sign it, and further, that she would not follow the terms of the agreement after they did marry. (An annulment provides that a marriage never took place. Without a marriage, there is no community property to divide between the parties if they separated. Since H was the breadwinner during the “marriage” all monies earned and everything purchased with the money he earned would be his.)

At trial, H presented his Islamic expert – who also happened to be the Iman that married the couple. He testified that all mahr agreements were to be taken literally, and therefore, W was only entitled to a copy of the Quran. She already received her five gold coins. W presented her Islamic expert from the Islamic Center of Orange County. He testified that Islamic scholars disagreed on whether mahr agreements were literal or symbolic. However, both experts testified that they would not perform a religious wedding ceremony without a signed mahr agreement.

The trial court pointed out Family Code Section 420 which states, “A contract of marriage, if otherwise duly made, shall not be invalidated for want of conformity to the requirements of any religious sect.” (In other words, California judges must base their decisions on law not religious beliefs. Therefore, if legally married, W would be entitled to half of the community property under the law.)

The trial court concluded that W did not deceive H at the time of their marriage, and therefore denied H’s request for annulment. H appealed.

The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court:

“The question of whether the Mahr Agreement represented a minimum or a maximum, or was symbolic or literal, was never discussed [between the parties]. It appears that [H] assumed that when [W] agreed to his terms for the Mahr Agreement, and she also agreed with his view that the Mahr Agreement limited her property rights to those specified items. As it turned out, she did not…

“The law in California has long been that an annulment of marriage may be granted on the basis of fraud only in an extreme case where the particular fraud goes to the very essence of the marriage relation … [such as fertility or sharing the marital bed]… [T]he fraud relied upon to secure a termination of the existing status must be such fraud as directly affects the marriage relationship and not merely such fraud as would be sufficient to rescind an ordinary civil contract.”

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