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Odatalla v. Odatalla

Odatalla v. Odatalla, 355 N.J. Super. 305; 810 A.2d 93 (Ch. Div. 2002)Court: Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County

The court, in favor of the wife, held a mahr agreement enforceable where it was enforceable based on contracts law and met the state’s standards for contracts.

Husband and Wife were married in New Jersey in a religious ceremony. As part of the marriage ceremony, the couple signed a mahr agreement. The mahr provided for a postponed payment of $10,000. The ceremony and the mahr negotiations were videotaped. During divorce proceedings, the Wife sought to have the mahr enforced by the court. The Husband argued two reasons why the mahr should be not enforced:

  1. The separation of Church and State doctrine of the First Amendment precludes the court from reviewing the mahr agreement, and
  2. The mahr is not a valid contract under New Jersey law.

The court disagreed with the Husband on both counts. Even though it was a part of a religious ceremony, a mahr agreement can be enforced if:

  1. The agreement is enforceable based on neutral principles of law, and
  2. The agreement meets the state’s standards for the neutral principles of law.

For the first prong, the court, citing the “neutral principles of law” doctrine in the Supreme Court case Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), stated that if court can decide the issue of the mahr on neutral principles of law and not religious beliefs or policies, then there are no First Amendment violations. In response to the Husband’s second argument, the court looked to New Jersey contract law. While the Husband argued that the mahr was too vague because the term “postponed” did not define when the money would be due, the court found that the mahr agreement contained all the essential elements of a contract. The court also stated that the mahr was a contract between two consenting adults and not against public policy.

Note: Cited in New Jersey case, Rahman v. Hossain, 2010 N.J.Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1326 (2010), for background information on mahr agreements under Islamic customs.

Note: Cited in Washington case, In re Marriage of Obaidi, 226 P.3d 787 at 790 (2010), in support of the neutral principles of law approach in deciding on an issue over a mahr agreement.

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