Deserted wives, children entitled to alimony from date of application: Supreme Court

Apex court lays down guidelines for matrimonial cases.

The Supreme Court on November 11 held that deserted wives and children are entitled to alimony/maintenance from the husbands from the date they apply for it in a court of law.

In a significant judgment by a Bench of Justices Indu Malhotra and R. Subhash Reddy, the top court said women deserted by husbands were left in dire straits, often reduced to destitution, for lack of means to sustain themselves and their children.

The 67-page judgment by Justice Malhotra laid down uniform and comprehensive guidelines for family courts, magistrates and lower courts to follow while hearing the applications filed by women seeking maintenance from their estranged husbands.

The court said despite a plethora of maintenance laws, women were left empty-handed for years, struggling to make ends meet after a bad marriage.

Deprived of sustenance

“The view that maintenance ought to be granted from the date when the application was made is based on the rationale that the primary object of maintenance laws is to protect a deserted wife and dependent children from destitution and vagrancy. If maintenance is not paid from the date of application, the party seeking maintenance would be deprived of sustenance, owing to the time taken for disposal of the application, which often runs into several years,” Justice Malhotra wrote.

Usually maintenance cases have to be settled in 60 days, but they take years in reality owing to legal loopholes.

To ensure that judicial orders for grant of maintenance are duly enforced by husbands, The court said a violation would lead to punishments such as civil detention and even attachment of the property of the latter. “The order or decree of maintenance may be enforced like a decree of a civil court, through the provisions which are available for enforcing a money decree,” Justice Malhotra wrote.

“The plea of the husband that he does not possess any source of income ipso facto does not absolve him of his moral duty to maintain his wife, if he is able-bodied and has educational qualifications,” the court declared.

Both the applicant wife and the respondent husband have to disclose their assets and liabilities in a maintenance case. Any earlier case filed or pending under any other law should also be revealed in court.

Education expenses

The expenses of the children, including their education, basic needs and other vocational activities, should be factored in by courts while calculating the alimony. “Education expenses of the children must be normally borne by the father. If the wife is working and earning sufficiently, the expenses may be shared proportionately between the parties,” Justice Malhotra observed.Other factors such as “spiralling inflation rates and high costs of living” should be considered, but the wife should receive an alimony which fit the standard of life she was used to in the matrimonial home.

Permanent alimony

The court opined it would not be equitable to order a husband to pay his wife permanent alimony for the rest of her life, considering the fact that in contemporary society marriages do not last for a reasonable length of time. Anyway, the court said, the duration of a marriage should be accounted for while determining the permanent alimony.

The judgment was based on a matrimonial plea from Maharashtra on the question of payment of maintenance by a man to his wife and son under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The case had been dragging on for years.

“Section 125 of the CrPC was conceived to ameliorate the agony, anguish, financial suffering of a woman who had left her matrimonial home, so that some suitable arrangements could be made to enable her to sustain herself and the children,” Justice Malhotra noted.

The judgment reiterated that Section 125 of the CrPC would include couples living together for years within its ambit.

“Strict proof of marriage should not be a pre-condition for grant of maintenance under Section 125 of the CrPC,” the court said.

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