Case of the Day: SB v. WA
Posted on October 23, 2012
The Case of the Day is SB v. WA (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2012). The parties were civilly married in New York in 1998. About a month later, they had a religious wedding ceremony in New York and, as part of the ceremony, they signed a mahr agreement, which, under Islamic law, obligates the husband to pay the wife a dower at the time of the marriage. This mahr agreement required a payment of $5,000 at the time of the marriage and $250,000 in the event of a divorce.
The couple and their children moved to Abu Dhabi, and the wife brought a criminal charge there against the husband after an incident of domestic violence. The husband was convicted of assault. The wife used the criminal conviction as the basis to obtain a divorce in Abu Dhabi—from the civil courts, not the Sharia courts. The proceedings, as described in the decision, were somewhat eye-opening. The husband counterclaimed, seeking an order requiring his wife “to obey him, not to go out of the house without his permission, to move with him to their Homeland America, and to pay all fees and expenses.”
The divorce decree gave the wife custody of the children and significant alimony, including the $250,000 deferred dower, and child support. The Court of Cassation affirmed. The husband then left Abu Dhabi and returned to new York. The wife, still in Abu Dhabi, sought recognition and enforcement of the divorce decree, including the custody provisions, and the provisions on the mahr agreement, in New York.
I want to focus just on the mahr agreement, which the judge decided was entitled to recognition and enforcement under the UFMJRA rather than under general principles of comity. I don’t want really to focus on the reasons for the ultimate decision. Instead, I want to focus on whether the Abu Dhabi judgment, to the extent it concerned the mahr agreement, was the kind of judgment that should bring the Uniform Act into play. In form, the mahr is a contract that can give rise to claims for damages or specific performance if breached. But isn’t it really part and parcel of the domestic relations disputes between the husband and the wife? The UFMJRA excludes judgments “for support in matrimonial or family matters.”1 I haven’t seen any cases on this, but it seems to me that the judge should have treated the mahr like she treated the remainder of the case—as a matter of comity rather than as a matter for the Uniform Act.