The extent of a court enforcing a religious prenuptial agreement, like the Islamic Mahr agreement, is big news. A family judge in Florida recently ruled that an Islamic Mahr agreement was not only enforceable, but waived equitable distribution and temporary support. How did an appellate court view the ruling?
The Mahr from Thar
For many religious couples, in lieu of a secular prenuptial agreement, they sign a religious contract. Catholics have prenuptial agreements and Jews have a ketubah. In this recent Florida divorce, the parties signed an Islamic premarital agreement called a “Mahr” or “Mehr” agreement.
Although the agreement was entered in Bangladesh, neither party claimed it should be interpreted under Bangladeshi or Sharia law.
A Mahr is a contract to pay money – frequently expressed in gold coins – promised by a groom to his bride in the event of death or divorce. The amount is agreed to before the marriage and negotiated between the parents of the couple.
This Mahr agreement was two pages long, and had the explicit promise by Former Husband to pay Former Wife a total of 15 Bangladeshi lac Taka upon marriage. Five lac Taka were to be paid up front on marriage, and ten more in the event of a divorce.
At the time of the trial, 10 lac Taka was worth about $12,000. The Bangladeshi Taka has not been appreciating against the dollar lately.
At trial, the Former Wife argued that the ten lac Taka Mahr agreement was only the minimum amount she could ask the Former Husband for. In the Former Wife’s view, the Mehr did not waive her right to equitable distribution and temporary alimony.
The Former Husband, on the other hand, argued that the ten lac Taka under the Mahr agreement was the maximum she could get. The purpose of the Mahr was to guarantee an agreed sum to her. By agreeing to a guaranteed payment in advance, she waived her rights to ask for anything else.
The family law judge found that the Former Wife had built up some equity in the jointly titled, marital home, but then awarded it to the Former Husband. Then the court ordered Former Wife to vacate the house.
Relying on the Mahr agreement, the judge also denied Former Wife temporary alimony, limiting her to the ten lac Taka lump sum.
The Former Wife appealed.
Florida Prenuptial Agreements
I’ve written about religious prenuptial agreements, such as the Mahr, before. Prenuptial agreements are not just for celebrities. Anyone who brings personal or business assets into their marriage can benefit from a prenuptial agreement.
Prenups are also important to have in place before a couple starts investing in businesses, buying properties, and accumulating mountains of debt.
But just having a prenup is not enough. Prenups are frequently challenged in court. Florida has both case law and a statute to help lawyers, judges and the parties determine if a prenuptial agreement is enforceable.
Florida also adopted the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act. The UPAA requires that all premarital agreements be in writing and signed by both parties. It is enforceable without consideration other than the marriage itself.
Because prenuptial agreements may be challenged in court, Florida courts must consider things such as fraud, duress, coercion, in addition to the unfairness of the agreement, and whether there was any financial disclosure.
Florida the Sunshine Religious State?
Many people don’t realize that religious agreements can be enforceable in Florida. However, there is a limitation, only a religious agreement’s secular terms are enforceable as a contractual obligation. That is true even if the secular terms were agreed to in a religious ceremony.
Here, the parties disputed how the terms of the Mahr agreement should be interpreted. Former Husband argued the Mahr agreement was meant to protect a spouse in the event of a divorce, so the Mahr should be read as the entirety of Former Wife’s recovery.
Former Wife argued the lack of waiver language in the Mahr agreement –stating that the couple intended to waive equitable distribution and alimony – meant she was entitled to ask a Florida court for relief in addition to the Mahr.
The appellate court reversed, holding that parties to a prenuptial agreement — religious or secular — are allowed to contract away their traditional marital rights, but they must do so in a way that comports with Florida law.
To contract away marital rights, a prenuptial agreement’s plain language must unambiguously express a desire to waive equitable distribution. Additionally, any agreement that waives or limits the right to temporary support and attorney’s fees violates Florida public policy.
Because the Mahr did not expressly bar Former Wife from seeking a property division and alimony, it couldn’t overcome Florida’s strong public policy in favor of equitable distribution and temporary alimony.
The opinion is here.