Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Islamic Prenuptial Agreements - A Case Out of Washington

The Google Alerts blurb caught my eye and I spent some time yesterday evening reading IN RE MARRIAGE OF OBAIDI.

Here are some of the facts:

Ms. Obaidi and Mr. Qayoum were married for approximately 13 months. At the time of the marriage, Ms. Obaidi was 19 and Mr. Qayoum was 26. Mr. Qayoum is a United States citizen and has lived in the United States since he was three. Ms. Obaidi is from Canada.

The parties are both children of Afghan immigrants and the couple was married according to Afghan custom. As part of these customs, the parties signed a "mahr" agreement during an engagement or Nikkah ceremony held on December 30, 2005. The Nikkah ceremony is a religious ceremony that is similar to a wedding reception at a typical Christian wedding. At some point during the Nikkah ceremony, Ms. Obaidi and Mr. Qayoum, along with a small group of family and friends, went into a smaller room. Verses from the Koran were read and Ms. Obaidi and Mr. Qayoum each swore to take the other as his or her spouse. As part of the ceremony, the parties signed the mahr.

A mahr is an agreement based on Islamic law under which a husband agrees to pay a dowry to his wife. Generally, there is a short-term portion and a long-term portion. The short-term portion is due immediately. The long-term portion is the amount that the wife is entitled to take with her in the event of a divorce. In the mahr at issue here, the short-term portion was $100 and the long-term portion was $20,000.

The Nikkah ceremony was conducted in Farsi, except when Mr. Aji-sab, who performed the ceremony, asked Mr. Qayoum if he wanted to marry Ms. Obaidi. Mr. Qayoum does not speak, read, or write Farsi. Mr. Qayoum has lived in the United States for all but two or three years of his life.He considers himself "American first." Report of Proceedings at 107. He explained that he went through the Afghan marriage process because his mother was concerned that he would lose even the small amount of cultural knowledge he had about Afghanistan.

Mr. Qayoum testified that he had never heard the word "mahr" before the day of the Nikkah ceremony. He acknowledged that he had previously attended a couple of receptions, but he stated that he was unfamiliar with the Nikkah ceremony. According to Mr. Qayoum, he was not informed of the Nikkah ceremony until 10 or 15 minutes before the event took place. At some point, Mr. Qayoum selected an uncle to act as his representative during the discussions that took place as part of the Nikkah ceremony.

Here is some of the Washington Court of Appeals' analysis:

A New Jersey case, Odatalla v. Odatalla, 355 N.J. Super. Ct. Ch. Div. 305, 309, 810 A.2d 93 (2002), provides a helpful framework for considering the application of state law to a mahr agreement. In Odatalla, the trial court ordered the specific performance of the mahr agreement. The husband appealed, arguing that review of the mahr by a state court was precluded under the doctrine of separation of church and state. The husband also argued that the agreement was not a valid contract under New Jersey law. Id.

The Odatalla court looked for guidance to Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602-03, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979), which explained the "neutral principles of law" approach that allows agreements to be enforced based on neutral principles of law, not religious doctrine. In Jones, a dispute over the ownership of church property was taken to a civil court in Georgia. The court set aside the separation of church and state issues by applying the neutral principles of law doctrine. Justice Blackmun explained, "We cannot agree, however, that the First Amendment requires the States to adopt a rule of compulsory deference to religious authority in resolving church property disputes, even when no issue of doctrinal controversy is involved." Id. at 605. In other words, the court determined that the controversy over the ownership of the property could be decided on neutral principles of law, not upon religious beliefs or policies. Id.

Based on Jones, the Odatalla court determined that the mahr did not violate the separation of church and state doctrine if the court could apply neutral principles of law to the enforce the mahr. Odatalla, 355 N.J. Super. Ct. Ch. Div. at 311. The court concluded that the mahr could be enforced by applying neutral principles of contract law. Id. at 312. Notably, the court found all the elements of a contract even though the husband argued that the mahr was too vague to apply because it did not state when the money would be due. Id. at 313. Because the court determined that the mahr was simply a contract between two consenting adults, the court concluded that the mahr was not against public policy. Id. at 314.

Here, we apply neutral principles of Washington law. However, the trial court found the wife was not abused, not unfaithful, and did not do anything to create a forfeiture of the mahr under Islamic law. The trial court also found that the husband was not unfaithful, but that he had initiated the separation without good cause.Consequently, the court erred by considering Islamic law or fault.

Applying the neutral principles of contract law, we can resolve this case by using these neutral principles of law, not Islamic beliefs or policies. We apply Washington law to resolve the issues of the formation and validity of the agreement.

And this appellate court hit on the issue that bothered me from the first paragraph of the opinion and which I think would apply here in Indiana:

The negotiations preceding the execution of the agreement were conducted in Farsi. Also, the document was written in Farsi which Mr. Qayoum does not read, write, or speak. Mr. Qayoum did not have the opportunity to consult with counsel although he was advised by his uncle, who is neither an attorney nor an expert in Islamic law, after the agreement was signed. Because Mr. Qayoum could not speak, write, or read Farsi, there was no meeting of the minds as to the terms of the mahr agreement.

Just as with any prenuptial agreement, handing the prenup to the other person just before the wedding is going to lead to an invalid agreement. But putting the agreement into a foreign language that the recipient cannot read? Not a good idea at all.

1 comment:

family law said...

wow..., interesting case. and your blog is full topics. so nice to know about law that different with in my country, indonesia.
i have your link, please link me back. thx.