Muntha v. Tigulla, No. 97-738636-DO, (Fam. Div. Wayne Co. Mich. 10/16/98)
DIVORCE – ANNULMENT – PROPERTY – FRAUD ANNULMENT SUBSTITUTED FOR DIVORCE BECAUSE DIVORCE BAD FOR WIFE IN HER NATIVE INDIA – DOWRY AS SEPARATE-PROPERTY GIFT TO WIFE
Although this case is over a year old, this week is the first time a transcript of it has been prepared. While the judge’s solution to the problem is somewhat unique, the underlying situation is increasingly common for lawyers who deal with immigrants from South Asian countries.
This was an arranged marriage. When the wife came to the United States two months after the marriage, the husband already had a relationship with another woman, who had been living in the home until just before the wife arrived. The wife was immediately abandoned and left alone in the apartment. The husband refused to include her in any of his social activities. After two months, he sent her back to India. He then sued for divorce.
The wife had an expert on Indian law testify that in Indian society the wife, who is in her twenties, would be totally shamed and reduced to an unmarriageable status by a divorce. The judge noted that the wife’s responsive pleadings had included all the elements necessary for an annulment, offered her the opportunity of amending them to seek an annulment, and granted an annulment on fraud grounds instead of a divorce. The judge found that the husband’s conduct showed that, whatever his motives in getting married may have been, “he certainly did not intend the objects of matrimony when he did, and therefore he committed fraud.”
The judge had the husband pay the wife the amount of the dowry which had been paid by the wife’s family, and controlled and dissipated by the husband and his family. The rationale is that the dowry was a gift to the wife, for her benefit, and thus her separate property. Testimony from Indian lay witnesses, as well as the expert witness, showed that dowry is a gift from the wife’s family intended to let the new bride “set up a suitable and comfortable household for her husband, and is “considered to be the property of the woman … held by custom by the husband’s family” for her benefit. Also, according to custom, “the wife can demand the dowry” for her own use.
In India, dowry is not illegal, but making an excessive demand for dowry is. At the time of this decision, the wife’s family had sued the husband and his family in India for he return of the dowry and brought criminal charge against them for excessive dowry demands. The husband’s family had in fact been arrested for this, and an arrest warrant and extradition proceedings for the husband were pending.
(If anyone wants a copy of the transcript, I have some.)