Enforceability of Religious Marriage Contract in Ohio

Author: LegalEase Solutions 

Introduction

XXX wife entered into a religious “Marriage Contract” with XXX husband in which husband promised to pay wife a $25,000 dowry.  The contract is silent on the conditions for the payment of the dowry.  The agreement is signed by both parties and attested to by two witnesses.

Questions Presented

  • Can the religious “Marriage Contract” between Wife and Husband be enforced?
  • If so, what are the requirements for an enforceable contract?

Short Answers

  • The religious marriage contract between Wife and Husband can be enforced as an antenuptial agreement and Wife can get an award for $25,000 provided the contract comports with existing Ohio law regarding antenuptial agreements.
  • The antenuptial agreement will be valid and enforceable if Wife can show that (1) it was entered into freely without fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching; (2) there was full disclosure, or full knowledge and understanding of the nature, value and extent of the prospective spouse’s property; and (3) if the terms do not promote or encourage divorce or profiteering by divorce.

Discussion

  1. A) The religious marriage contract between Wife and Husband can be enforced as an antenuptial agreement

Section § 3103.5 of the Ohio Revised Code states as follows:

“A husband or wife may enter into any engagement or transaction with the other, or with any other person, which either might if unmarried; subject, in transactions between themselves, to the general rules which control the actions of persons occupying confidential relations with each other.”

The Ohio courts have not specifically dealt with the issue of religious marriage contracts. But cases from other jurisdictions indicate that religious marriage contracts are enforceable as antenuptial agreements, provided they satisfy state contract law.

Dowry, also known as mahr, has been interpreted by several courts to form part of an antenuptial agreement.  For example, in Chaudry v. Chaudry, 388 A.2d 1000, 1006 (App. Div. 1978), a New Jersey appellate court held that a Muslim marriage contract called a “nikahname” was in fact an “antenuptial agreement.”  The contract provided that at any time during or after the marriage the wife could demand from her husband 15,000 rupees, about $1,500.  Id. at 1004.  Although the agreement could have provided the wife with additional rights in her husband’s property, the agreement contained no such provision.  Id.  Rather, the antenuptial agreement limited her rights to a specified amount of $1,500, and provided no further interest in her husband’s property.  Id.  In Chaudry, the court held that the antenuptial agreement controlled and that wife was not entitled to equitable distribution of her husbands assets.  The effect of this holding gave the wife her entitled $1,500 mahr, but precluded her from receiving alimony amounting to half of her husband’s estate.

In New York, where the terms of a mahr conformed to the requirements of the New York General Obligations Law it was enforceable as a contractual obligation, notwithstanding that it was entered into as part of a religious ceremony.  See, Aziz v. Aziz, 127 Misc.2d 1013, 1013-1014 (N.Y. Misc. 1985).  In Aziz, the parties agreed to a mahr of $ 5,032 ($5,000 deferred payment and a $32 immediate payment).  During the divorce, the husband argued that the mahr was a religious document and was therefore not enforceable as a contract in a matrimonial action.  Id. at 1013.  The court disagreed and held that the contract for a mahr was enforceable despite the fact that the agreement was entered into as part of a religious ceremony.  Id. at 1014.

In Chaudhary v. Ali, 1994 Va. App. LEXIS 759 (Va. Ct. App. 1994), the husband and wife entered into a pre-nuptial agreement called a “nikah nama” in which the wife waived all her rights to the husband’s estate as well as marital support.  Id.  The husband sought to enforce this contract which would free him from future alimony obligations.  On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the agreement was unenforceable.  In doing so, the court held:

“The nikah nama was “otherwise valid” in Virginia if it satisfied existing Virginia law pertaining to prenuptial agreements.”

The court went on to hold that the agreement was unenforceable because it was not negotiable and there was no full and frank disclosure to the wife of husband’s worth and assets before the wife signed the agreement.  Id. at 762.   Moreover, there was no evidence that the wife received independent advice prior to signing the agreement.  Id.

In Akileh v. Elchahal, 666 So.2d 246 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1996), the parties were married in Florida and the husband and the wife’s father agreed to a sadaq (a postponed dowry that protected the wife in the event of divorce under Islamic tradition) prior to the parties’ marriage.  Upon separation, the wife made a claim for mahr. The husband claimed that the wife forfeited her claim for mahr by demanding divorce.  The court looked into the secular obligations of the religious antenuptial agreement and concluded that the sadaq was enforceable as a type of contract. The case was of first impression in Florida and the court relied on the New York decision of Aziz v. Aziz to hold that religious antenuptial agreements may be enforceable in a court of law if they comply with existing contract law. Id. at 248.  The court observed that under Florida law, marriage is a sufficient consideration to uphold a prenuptial agreement and the parties agreed to the essential terms of the contract by deciding that $1 was to be paid at the time of the execution of the agreement and $50,000 to be postponed and paid if the parties divorced. Id.  The court found that the wife performed under the agreement by entering into the marriage. The court further held that “the husband’s subjective intent at the time of the agreement is not material in construing the contract.”  Id. at 249.

In all of these cases, the courts have interpreted the religious contracts as antenuptial agreements.  Therefore the religious marriage contract between Wife and Husband can be enforced as an antenuptial agreement provided it comports with Ohio contract law.

  1. B) The religious “Marriage Contract” between Wife and Husband can be enforced as a prenuptial agreement and Wife can get an award for the $25,000 provided the contract satisfies Ohio law regarding antenuptial agreements.

The Ohio Supreme Court has defined an antenuptial agreement as a contract entered into between a man and a woman in contemplation, and in consideration, of their future marriage whereby the property rights and economic interests of either the prospective wife or husband, or both, are determined and set forth in such instrument.  Gross v. Gross, 11 Ohio St. 3d 99 (1984).  If the agreement is fair and reasonable under the circumstances, it will be deemed enforceable. Gross, supra.

Prenuptial agreements are valid and enforceable:

“if they have been entered into freely without fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching; (2) if there was full disclosure, or full knowledge and understanding of the nature, value and extent of the prospective spouse’s property; and (3) if the terms do not promote or encourage divorce or profiteering by divorce.”

Millstein v. Millstein, 2002 Ohio 4783, P53 (Ohio Ct. App. 2002).

The burden of proving fraud, duress, coercion or overreaching is on the party challenging the agreement. Millstein, 2002 Ohio 4783, P56.  The record here does not indicate whether the marriage contract was entered into through fraud, duress, coercion or overreaching.  However, since Wife is not challenging the agreement and is trying to enforce it, it would not be her burden to establish the first condition.

Under the second condition, there should be full disclosure, or full knowledge and understanding of the nature, value and extent of the prospective spouse’s property.  Millstein, 2002 Ohio 4783, P53.  In Millstein, the wife alleged that the antenuptial agreement was invalid because the husband failed to disclose his assets.  The court noted that a prenuptial agreement that is freely and voluntarily entered into will not be invalid merely because it makes a disproportionate distribution.  Id. at P54.  The court then determined that the wife had a general knowledge of the husband’s wealth before she signed the agreement and therefore the agreement was valid and enforceable. Id. at P85.  The court further held:

“When an antenuptial agreement provides disproportionately less than the party challenging it would have received under an equitable distribution, the burden is on the one claiming the validity of the contract to show that the other party entered into it with the benefit of full knowledge or disclosure of the assets of the proponent.”

Id. at P56.

In Zimmie v. Zimmie, 11 Ohio St. 3d 94, 98 (Ohio 1984), the court held that an antenuptial agreement was unenforceable because it did not meet the minimum standards of good faith and fair dealing. Id. at 98.  In Zimmie, the wife saw the agreement for the first time just one day prior to the wedding and there had been no previous discussion of the contents of the agreement. Id.  Moreover, she signed the agreement without reading its contents, she was not aware of the value of her husband’s assets and she was not aware that she was giving up her marital rights in her husband’s property. Id.  As a result, she did not voluntarily enter into the agreement with a full disclosure of her husband’s financial worth.  Id.  The Supreme Court held that a prospective spouse has to be fully appraised of the nature, value, and extent of the property affected by the agreement, and must enter into it voluntarily. Id.

These cases involve challenges to antenuptial agreements where the wife was not fully satisfied with the rights granted to her under the antenuptial agreement.  Here, Wife is not challenging the agreement and is merely trying to enforce her rights under the agreement.  Therefore, any challenge to the disclosure condition would have to be made by Husband.  Once a challenge is made, the requirement that a valid and enforceable antenuptial agreement be entered into with full disclosure, or full knowledge, and understanding, of the nature, value, and extent of the prospective spouse’s property, is satisfied either by the exhibiting of the attachment to the antenuptial agreement of a listing of the assets of the parties to the agreement, or alternatively a showing that there had been a full disclosure by other means. Gross v. Gross, 11 Ohio St. 3d 99, 105 (Ohio 1984).

The third condition requires that the agreement not promote or encourage divorce or profiteering by divorce. In In re Marriage of Dajani, 204 Cal. App. 3d 1387 (Cal. Ct. App. 1988), the court held that the mahr was not enforceable if it contravenes public policy.  In Dajani, the marriage contract was completed in Jordan, the husband agreed to pay a token amount of a dowry to the wife upon performance of the marriage in Jordan, and the remaining substantial sum of money would be payable to her upon his death or the dissolution of the marriage.  Id. at 1387.  A civil ceremony of marriage was performed in California.  Subsequently, the wife sued for divorce and sought enforcement of the mahr. Id. The California court held that it could not enforce a foreign dowry agreement which benefits a party who initiates dissolution of the marriage. Id. at 1388.  The court relied on Jordanian law and found that the wife forfeited the mahr if she initiates the termination of marriage.  Id. at 1389.  The court observed that the contract was designed to facilitate divorce and allowed the wife to resort to profiteering by divorce. Id. at 1390.  Therefore, the contract contravened public policy because it only provided for a settlement in the event of divorce or separation. Id.

In Millstein v. Millstein, 2002 Ohio 4783, P9, the husband had a net worth of $28 million at the time of marriage while the wife had a net worth slightly over $10,000. In contemplation of marriage, and because of his desire to limit his wife’s interest in his estate, and to protect the interests of his five children from his previous marriage, the husband insisted that they enter into a prenuptial agreement. Id. at P10. The court held that these types of agreements “tend to promote or facilitate marriage, rather than encourage divorce.”  Id. at P86.  The court noted that the husband testified that he would not have married without a prenuptial agreement and therefore the agreement facilitated the marriage.  Id. at P86.  Further, the terms of the prenuptial agreement would not have encouraged the wife to get a divorce and in fact prevented her from profiteering from this decision. Id.  See also, Gross v. Gross, 11 Ohio St. 3d 99, 110 (Ohio 1984) (recognizing that antenuptial agreements tend to promote or facilitate marriage rather than encourage divorce).

In the Ohio Court of Common Pleas judgment dated July 24, 2002 in Amawi v. Al-Huda Bugailch, Case No. 01 DR-02-611 (Preisse, J.), the wife sought the enforcement of a marriage contract similar to the one found in the present case.  There, Judge Preisse treated the contract as an “antenuptial” agreement but refused to enforce the agreement because it did not strictly comply with the requirements for a valid antenuptial agreement.  Specifically, Judge Preisse found that neither spouse testified that either had made full disclosure of the nature and value of his/her prospective property.  In addition, the prospective payment of $5,000 dinars to wife should the marriage be terminated by husband could constitute encouragement for divorce especially in light of the husband’s contention that the wife only got married to obtain United States citizenship.

In the instant case, Husband, and not Wife, has filed for divorce evidencing the fact that Wife is not “encouraging” the divorce or seeking to “profit” from the divorce.  Moreover, as in Millstein, if Wife’s financial condition in marriage was far better than her rights under the antenuptial agreement, clearly she is not seeking to profit from the divorce.  In addition, nothing in the record indicates that Wife married Husband to obtain citizenship status.  Lastly, the contract does not explicitly make the payment of the dowry due upon divorce.  Therefore, since Husband has filed for divorce, Wife can easily show that she is not encouraging or facilitating the divorce by attempting to enforce the marriage contract.

Conclusion

Generally, courts in the United States have interpreted religious marriage contracts as antenuptial agreements. Although there is no Ohio case directly on point, the religious marriage contract between Wife and Husband can be enforced as an antenuptial agreement and Wife can get an award for $25,000 provided the agreement complies with Ohio law dealing with antenuptial agreements.  Ohio law requires three conditions be met prior to the enforcement of an antenuptial agreement: (1) it has been entered into freely without fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching; (2) there has been full disclosure, or full knowledge and understanding of the nature, value and extent of the prospective spouse’s property; and (3) the terms do not promote or encourage divorce or profiteering by divorce.  Provided these conditions are satisfied, Wife can enforce the agreement.