A Husband Has No Control Over His Wife's 'Streedhan': Supreme Court

The highest court mentioned that marital issues are seldom simple or straightforward hence, human reaction according to a mechanical timeline before the sacred bond of marriage is severed is not what one would expect.
Supreme Court
Supreme Court

The Supreme Court (SC) has reaffirmed that a husband has no control over his wife's 'streedhan' (woman's property) and while he may use it during the time of his distress, he has a moral obligation to return it to his wife. This directive was emphasized as the court ordered a man to pay Rs 25 lakh to a woman in return for her lost gold.

In this instance, the woman asserted that her family gifted her 89 sovereigns of gold during the marriage ceremony. Furthermore, following the wedding, her father presented a cheque of Rs 2 lakh to her husband.

According to the woman's account, on the initial night of their marriage, the husband took custody of all her jewellery and entrusted the same to his mother under the garb of safekeeping. She claimed that both the husband and his mother misused the jewellery to discharge their pre-existing financial liabilities.

In 2011, the Family Court concluded that the husband and his mother had misappropriated the appellant's gold jewellery, and she was deemed eligible to recover the damages resulting from this misappropriation.

The Kerala High Court (HC), while partially overturning the relief provided by the family court, held that the woman had not been able to establish the misappropriation of gold jewellery by the husband and his mother. Following this, the woman appealed to the SC against the HC order.

A panel comprising justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta stated that 'streedhan' property does not transform into joint ownership between the wife and husband, and the husband has no title or independent dominion over the property as its owner.

The bench said while referring to an earlier judgment on the issue: "Properties gifted to a woman before marriage, at the time of marriage or at the time of bidding farewell or thereafter are her ‘streedhan’ properties. It is her absolute property with all rights to dispose at her pleasure.

"The husband has no control over her ‘streedhan’ property. He may use it during the time of his distress but nonetheless, he has a moral obligation to restore the same or its value to his wife.”

The SC noted that matters within matrimony are seldom straightforward, suggesting that human reactions should not conform to a rigid timeline before the sacred bond of marriage is severed is not what one would expect.

"Divorce, majorly, in Indian society is still considered a stigma, and any delay in commencement of legal proceedings is quite understandable because of the attempts made to have the disputes and differences resolved; more so, in a case of the present nature, when the appellant was faced with the imminent prospect of termination of her second marriage.

" Even otherwise, the appellant did not present before the Family Court a time-barred claim. Doubting the bona fide of the appellant, on facts and in the circumstances, was thus not called for," the bench said.

The SC emphasized that the fundamental essence of marriage lies in the inherent mutual trust between spouses, which conjugality necessarily involves and to assume that the woman from day one did not trust the husband is rather improbable.

"The HC, thus, failed to draw the right inference from facts which appear to have been fairly established. That apart, we have neither been shown nor do we know of any binding precedent that for a claim of return of ‘streedhan’ articles or money equivalent thereof to succeed, the wife has to prove the mode and manner of such acquisition.

"It was not a criminal trial where the chain of circumstances had to be complete and conclusively proved, without any missing link. Undisputedly, the appellant had brought to the matrimonial home sufficient quantum of jewellery, which she wore during the marriage and as is evidenced from photographs," the bench said.

The highest court stated that the woman had effectively commenced proceedings to reclaim the monetary value equivalent to 89 sovereigns of gold, which in the year 2009 was valued at Rs 8.90 lakh.

"Mere upholding of the decree of the Family Court at this distance of time, without anything more, would bring about injustice to her. Bearing in mind the passage of time, the escalation in cost of living, and the interest of equity and justice, we deem it fit in the exercise of the power conferred by Article 142 of the Constitution of India to award the appellant a sum of Rs 25,00,000," the bench said.

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