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Club Memberships And Divorce: Can You Belong When You're Leaving?

26/12/2015 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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As the child a of an Air Force officer, I was a frequent visitor of the Delhi Gymkhana Club and Sirhind Club in Ambala. Clubs were an integral part of our life because when you are posted from one station to another, as they helped us adjust to the new surroundings, make friends and avail of a range of facilities, like a library and sports, at a nominal rate. They were a home away from home.

But now club memberships have become exclusionary -- a symbol of a lifestyle and of belonging to a hip social set, not to mention a heart attack-inducing exorbitant membership fee.

In recent years, clubs have become a bone of contention between couples going through a divorce. Please note that I specifically mention couples "going through a divorce" and not those who are already divorced.

Does a club membership also qualify as a property or asset that can be divided among a couple going through a divorce?

"Let me give you an idea of why this is such a big deal: membership of a prestigious club in a posh locality can cost the price of buying a house or perhaps a flat in Mumbai."

Given that divorce is a relatively recent phenomenon and has only now come out in the open, tussles over club memberships present a fresh challenge as there are not many precedents to rely on. However, there's no denying how important these memberships have become. Getting into a club is so expensive that it's become a status symbol - I've even seen matrimonial ads mentioning the would-be bride or groom's much-coveted club membership.

Let me give you an idea of why this is such a big deal: membership of a prestigious club in a posh locality can cost the price of buying a house or perhaps a flat in Mumbai, given the fact that it's one of the world's most expensive cities. Otters Club in Bandra, Mumbai, charges a membership fee ranging from Rs 75 lakh to 1 crore, while Khar Gymkhana asks you to shell out 50-75 lakh for a life membership. Besides, simply having the money is no guarantee of getting in either. There is also a waiting period and a lengthy interview process to qualify and get approved for membership.

So coming back to the main question, what really happens to club memberships during divorce?

I'd like to illustrate, for once, with my own story. My divorce case was initiated about 10 years ago and my spouse was (and continues to be) a member of Khar Gymkhana Club. He was a primary member and as his wife I became a secondary member. When things started souring between us I started going more often to the club to use the gym and also the library, for both of which you have to pay a separate subscription fee (nominal compared to the club membership fee -- about Rs 1000 per year for the library).

While this was going on my spouse sent a letter to the club asking them to bar me from using the facilities. When this happened the club had a "discretionary" right to even forbid me from entering but my lawyer sent a legal notice arguing that the matter is sub judice and until a final judgement is passed no steps should be taken.

The club came back with the response:

"Since the matter is sub judice and the court order proclaiming the divorce has not yet been passed the secondary member will be allowed to continue using the membership..."

I know that it was an extremely progressive of the club to have given such a blanket cover for helping me to continue with the club membership. Because, really, what would have happened if our divorce hadn't come through and we'd been reconciled (as I mentioned in a previous post, it's simple to reconcile even after filing for divorce)?

What happens if a child is involved?

I encountered an interesting case of a couple, let's call them Nirav and Suparna, with a child, let's call her Trish, who was six when they decided to divorce. Now, Nirav had primary membership of a club and during the pendency of the litigation, he decided to stop Suparna from entering the club. Of course, this didn't cut ice with the club as they already had a judgement saying that during the pendency of the litigation, a secondary member cannot be barred from using the facilities although the transfer of charges or credits to the primary member can be stopped. Basically, the secondary member has to pay for things like food and drink and so on herself. All clubs usually comply with these guidelines.

"[D]uring the pendency of the litigation, a secondary member cannot be barred from using the facilities although the transfer of charges or credits to the primary member can be stopped."

In the course of my divorce and during my research for this article, I spoke to a few clubs, including Khar Gymkhana, Otters Club and Royal Bombay Yacht Club. They all confirmed that credit facilities could be stopped by the primary member.

Also, the membership of children is not impacted and they are able to enjoy their use of the facilities. In my experience most parents do not retract credit facilities for their children, especially minors, though in one case a man had to stop accepting his son's (a model who'd fallen into bad company) bills that ran to the tune of Rs 50,000 a month, a sum that the father truly couldn't afford.

This is an interesting new phenomenon which is reflecting the changing in trends of society -- it exemplifies what I term the as the socio-legal ties between law and society, where a trend in society leads to the development of a law.

Who would have thought that club memberships, which were essentially places of leisure, would have become scenarios of adrenalised divorce dramas. The case of clubs is also an embodiment of a basic principle of law. As per the Criminal and Civil Procedure as well as the fundamentals of law and jurisprudence, no institution can take any action against you if the matter is sub judice. More importantly it goes to the core of the justice system worldwide: you are innocent till proven guilty!

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