Interim maintenance is usually considered to be the right of a woman going through a divorce and rightly so because of the tough financial conditions she may face as the marriage is dismantled. But what happens if the woman is working and capable of providing for herself financially?
In an interesting case that I am handling, Purnima and Rajeev (names changed) got married in 2014 and due to irreconcilable differences have decided to part ways. They met and fell in love on campus while pursuing their MBA degree from one of the most prestigious IIMs in the country. Before they graduated, Purnima and Rajeev both got placements with great salaries at leading multinational companies. When Purnima came to me, she had some questions about interim maintenance. She was not sure whether she was eligible for it, since she was also working and was in fact earning more than her husband.
Now, Section 24 of the Hindu Marriage Act defines interim maintenance very clearly.
"Where in any proceeding under this Act it appears to the Court that either the wife or the husband, as the case may be, has no independent income sufficient for her or his support and the necessary expenses of the proceeding, it may, on the application of the wife or the husband, order the respondent to pay the petitioner the expenses of the proceeding such sum as, having regard to the petitioner's own income and the income of the respondent, it may seem to the Court to be reasonable."
Interim maintenance is essentially a provision for women who are completely dependent on their husband financially and have no independent means for looking after themselves.
In the matter of Mamta Jaiswal vs. Rajesh Jaiswal, the Madhya Pradesh High Court did not grant either an enhancement of interim maintenance or any money to the wife's companion for travel to the court for fighting the divorce case. In this case Mamta was educationally qualified and had been working as a college lecturer, even though later she lost her job.
Hon'ble J.G. Chitre remarked:
"The submission made on behalf of Mamta, the wife, is not palatable and digestible. This smells of oblique intention of putting extra financial burden on the husband. Such attempts are to be discouraged."
He further noted that Section 24 was not meant to create "an army" of idle people:
"A lady who is fighting matrimonial petition filed for divorce, cannot be permitted to sit idle and to put her burden on the husband for demanding pendente lite alimony from him during pendency of such matrimonial petition. Section 24 is not meant for creating an army of such idle persons... waiting for a 'dole' to be awarded by her husband who has got a grievance against her and who has gone to the Court for seeking a relief [sic] against her."
The judge warned:
"Everyone has to earn for the purpose of maintenance of himself or herself, [or] at least has to make sincere efforts in that direction. [Otherwise] there would be a tendency growing amongst such litigants to prolong such litigation and to milk out the adversary who happens to be a spouse..."
It is when women are capable of earning and they don't do so because they have been ill advised by lawyers to just sit at home and claim interim maintenance that the law gets misused.
Purnima, too, had been ill-advised in another matter to conceal her status as a working woman from the court. Such advice does not do any favour to the litigants because eventually the court will find out and our judges are wise enough to discern that if a woman got a degree from IIM she would most likely be working.
It is also the responsibility of women to interpret Section 24 in the right spirit. After all, in this day and age which young woman would like to be completely dependent on her husband for all her money?
This leads to a question in the larger sociolegal context. What happens if the husband or his family stop the wife from working? In such cases the judgements have been mixed but the court has been amenable to granting financial support to the wife.