When 33-year-old Gargi Arora’s marriage collapsed, she was more interested in getting the divorce from her lawyer-husband than fighting for alimony. The Chandigarh-based teacher didn’t want to press for maintenance because she’d been with him for only three months.
When she left her husband’s home, all she took along was her streedhan—the jewellery and other gifts given to her by her family at the time of her marriage. She didn’t take the gifts her in-laws had given her. She has no regrets, though. “I wanted a clean break and didn’t make any financial demands because I was confident of fending for myself,” she says.
For Rashmi Gauttam, 56, it was more difficult. Not only did she have to deal with the pain of seeing her marriage crumble after 27 years, she was in for a shock when she found that all the savings and investments were in her husband’s name, although she had contributed to the family income. Her ex-husband did give her an apartment in the Capital, but that was only because he wanted a quick separation so he could remarry.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Gauttam didn’t contest. She succumbed to social pressure, not wanting to face her husband’s colleagues, who lived in the same complex.
Besides, she wanted to liquidate the asset quickly so that she, too, could break free and start life all over again. She sold the apartment for Rs24 lakh and bought a house in Gurgaon. She sold that, too, soon after and moved to Dehradun.
“If I had held on to the Gurgaon flat, I would have got a good price for it now, as prices in the locality have nearly tripled in the last four years,” she says.
In Gauttam’s case, most of the gold jewellery her father had given her at the time of marriage were in a bank locker in her husband’s name. Here, she found resistance—her husband said he wanted their daughters to get what was rightfully theirs. He even claimed he had lost the keys to the locker.
Gauttam then went to the bank’s manager and found that duplicate keys could be made. Her insistence and a little “social” pressure made him relent. She got her jewellery, including what his parents had given her.
But like Arora, Gauttam, too, did not insist on maintenance, and began focusing instead on her career as an education consultant.
The question is: Could Gauttam have got a better financial deal for herself?
Let’s take a look at some things you need to know regarding streedhan, dowry, alimony and joint ownership.
Gauttam knew her legal rights while claiming streedhan. Says Anil Amrit, an advocate at the Delhi high court, “In a divorce settlement case, most women are generally not aware that they can take back not just the dowry, but also the gifts their in-laws gave them at the time of marriage.”
If the in-laws refuse to return the streedhan, a woman can file a criminal case and recover all her assets.
Regardless of her religion, a woman can take legal recourse in case her in-laws refuse to return what is rightfully hers.
Problem: However, women find it difficult to prove streedhan (see box below).
Tip 1: It’s important to maintain a record of all the gifts in the woman’s name. Make sure the titles are clear and that investments made from these assets are solely in her name. If possible, get the partner to endorse full or partial ownership.
Tip 2: Let’s take Gauttam’s case. She took a bold step in not agreeing to her husband’s argument that her jewellery was needed for their daughters. Had she consented to letting it remain in the locker, she could have lost it because he, as the natural guardian of the children, could have asserted his right to use the gold or sell it, and use the money according to his wish.
The amount of maintenance generally awarded by the courts depends on several factors. Says Siddhartha Shah, a Mumbai-based divorce lawyer: “There is no fixed quantum or amount prescribed for granting maintenance. But every woman has an unfettered right to be maintained by her husband as per all the statutory personal laws.” He says courts generally consider factors such as the husband’s financial status, the movable and immovable properties he owns, the financial requirements of the wife, and the husband’s capacity to pay. It also considers the wife’s financial status and her dependants. Amrit cites a high-profile case in the Delhi high court between Bharat Hegde, son of former chief minister of Karnataka, and his wife Saroj in 2007, in which 11 parameters were taken into account to award Saroj a monthly maintenance of Rs25,000.
Problem: Men often claim they aren’t earning enough to pay alimony. If the couple was living in a joint family before separation, the man can say a large part of the assets belong to the family. In such cases, the wife cannot stake a claim to them.
Tip: It would be useful to keep track of your husband’s tax papers, bank accounts, balance sheet, etc, to prove that he can support you. Remember, you lose the maintenance if you remarry.
Assets owned jointly will have to be liquidated and the proceeds shared in the ratio of ownership.
Problem: What if the asset is a house? Who moves out? One way forward is for one of the partners to buy out the other’s share.
Tips: The wife must insist on a deadline for payment in case she is moving out. She must also insist on being indemnified in case both had taken a joint loan to finance the purchase of a property.
If both husband and wife are signatories to a bank account, the proceeds should be divided equally between the two at the time of divorce.
Problem: If it is an “either or survivor” account, he could take the money out before the divorce proceedings start.
Tip: Says Rattan Chugh, chief executive of Cornerstone Wealth Management: “It is always better to maintain an account that requires both parties to sign. That way, the husband will have to approach his wife for her signature when he wants to withdraw money.”
• The gifts you get from friends and in-laws at the time of marriage
• Investments made, assets bought from the gifts/dowry
• Your income and the investments and assets bought in your name from it
• Your share of investments, assets owned jointly
How the law protects ‘streedhan’
• Your in-laws are bound by law to return all your ‘streedhan’ at the time of divorce. If they refuse, you can invoke section 498A of the Indian Penal Code by filing an FIR
• Although ‘streedhan’ is covered under the Hindu Marriage Act, you can take legal action to get your personal wealth back regardless of the community you belong to.
Click here to know more about your rights during a divorce settlement case and for an interview with Delhi high court advocate Anil Amrit
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