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Family Laws in India
Family Laws in India

Personal Law
The people of India belong to different religions and faiths. They are governed by different sets of personal laws in respect of matters relating to family affairs, i.e., marriage, divorce, succession, etc.

Law relating to marriage and/or divorce has been codified in different enactments applicable to people of different religions. These are:

The Converts' Marriage Dissolution Act, 1866
The Indian Divorce Act, 1869
The Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872
The Kazis Act, 1880
The Anand Marriage Act, 1909
The Indian Succession Act, 1925
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929
The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936
The Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939
The Special Marriage Act, 1954
The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955
The Foreign Marriage Act, 1969 and
The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986.

The Special Marriage Act, 1954 extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, but also applies to the citizens of India domiciled in Jammu and Kashmir. Persons governed by this Act can specifically register marriage under the said Act even though they are of different religious faiths. The Act also provides that the marriage celebrated under any other form can also be registered under the Special Marriage Act, if it satisfies the requirements of the Act. The section 4(b) (iii) of the Act was amended to omit the words "or epilepsy.'' Sections 36 and 38 have been amended to provide that an application for alimony pendente lite or the maintenance and education of minor children be disposed of within 60 days from the date of service of notice on the respondent.

An attempt has been made to codify customary law which is prevalent among Hindus by enacting the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, which extends to the whole of India, except the State of Jammu and Kashmir, applies also to Hindus domiciled in territories to which the Act extends and those who are outside the said territories. It applies to Hindus (in any of its forms or development) and also to Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and also those who are not Muslims, Christians, Parsis or Jews by religion. However, the Act does not apply to members of any scheduled tribes unless the Central Government by notification in the official Gazette otherwise directs.

Provisions in regard to divorce are contained in section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act and section 27 of the Special Marriage Act. Common ground on which divorce can be sought by a husband or a wife under these Acts fall under these broad heads: Adultery, desertion, cruelty, unsoundness of mind, venereal disease, leprosy, mutual consent and being not heard of as alive for seven years.

As regards the Christian community, provisions relating to marriage and divorce are contained in the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872 and in section 10 of the Indian Divorce Act, 1869 respectively. Under that section the husband can seek divorce on grounds of adultery on the part of his wife and the wife can seek divorce on the ground that the husband has converted to another religion and has gone through marriage with another woman or has been guilty of:

* Incestuous adultery
* Bigamy with adultery
* Marriage with another woman with adultery
* rape, sodomy or bestiality
* Adultery coupled with such cruelty as without adultery would have entitled her to a divorce, a mensa etoro (a system of divorce created by the Roman Catholic Church equivalent to judicial separation on grounds of adultery, perverse practices, cruelty, heresy and apostasy) and
* Adultery coupled with desertion without reasonable excuse for two years or more.

In the Indian Divorce Act, 1869 comprehensive Amendments were made through the Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act, 2001 (No. 51 of 2001) to remove discriminatory provisions against women in the matter of Divorce. Further, sections 36 and 41 of the Act were amended by the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Act, 2001 to provide that an application for alimony pendente lite or the maintenance and education of minor children be disposed of within 60 days from the date of service of notice on the respondent.

As regards Muslims, marriages are governed by the Mohammedan Law prevalent in the country. As regards divorce, i.e., Talaq, a Muslim wife has a much restricted right to dissolve her marriage. Unwritten and traditional law tried to ameliorate her position by permitting her to see dissolution under the following forms:

Talaq-I-Tafwid: This is a form of delegated divorce. According to this, the husband delegates his right to divorce in a marriage contract which may stipulate, inter alia, on his taking another wife, the first wife has a right to divorce him
Khula: this is a dissolution of agreement between the parties to marriage on the wife's giving some consideration to the husband for her release from marriage ties. Terms are a matter of bargain and usually take the form of the wife giving up her mehr or a portion of it, and
Mubarat: this is divorce by mutual consent.

Further, by the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939, a Muslim wife has been given the right to seek dissolution of her marriage on these grounds:

* Whereabouts of the husband have not been known for a period of four years
* Husband is not maintaining her for a period of two years
* Imprisonment of husband for a period of seven years or more
* Failure on the part of husband to perform his marital obligations, without a reasonable cause, for a period of three years
* Impotency of husband
* Two-year long insanity
* Suffering from leprosy or virulent venereal disease'
* Marriage took place before she attained the age of 15 years and not consummated and
* Cruelty.

The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 governs the matrimonial relations of Parsis. The word 'Parsi' is defined in the Act as a Parsi Zoroastrian. A Zoroastrian is a person who professes the Zoroastrian religion. It has a racial significance. Every marriage as well as divorce under this Act is required to be registered in accordance with the procedure prescribed in the Act. However, failure to fulfil requirements on that behalf does not make marriage invalid. The Act provides only for monogamy. By the Parsi Marriage and Divorce (Amendment) Act, 1988, scope of certain provisions of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 have been enlarged so as to bring them in line with the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. Recently, sections 39 and 49 of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 were amended by the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Act, 2001 to provide that an application for alimony pendent lite or the maintenance and education of minor children be disposed of within 60 days from the date of service of notice on the wife or the husband as the case may be.

As for the matrimonial laws of Jews, there is no codified law in India. Even today, they are governed by their religious laws. Jews do not regard marriage as a civil contract, but as a relation between two persons involving very sacred duties. Marriage can be dissolved through courts on grounds of adultery or cruelty. Marriages are monogamous.

Child Marriage
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, from 1 October 1978, provides that marriage age for males will be 21 years and for females 18 years.

Although there is no general law of adoption, it is permitted by the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956 amongst Hindus and by custom amongst a few numerically insignificant categories of persons. Since adoption is legal affiliation of a child, it forms the subject matter of personal law. Muslims, Christians and Parsis have no adoption laws and have to approach the court under the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. Muslims, Christians and Parsis can take a child under the said Act only under foster care. Once a child under foster care becomes major, he is free to break away all this connections. Besides, such a child does not have the legal right of inheritance. Foreigners, who want to adopt Indian children, have to approach the court under the aforesaid Act.

Hindu law relating to adoption has been amended and codified into the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, under which a male or female Hindu having legal capacity, can take a son or daughter in adoption. In dealing with the question of guardianship of a minor child, as in other spheres of family law, there is no uniform law. Hindu Law, Muslim Law and the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 are three distinct legal systems which are prevalent. A guardian may be a natural guardian, testamentary guardian or a guardian appointed by the court. In deciding the question of guardianship two distinct things have to be taken into account-person of the minor and his property. Often the same person is not entrusted with both.

The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956 has codified laws of Hindus relating to minority and guardianship. As in the case of uncodified law, it has upheld the superior right of father. It lays down that a child is a minor till the age of 18 years. Natural guardian for both boys and unmarried girls is first the father and then the mother. Prior right of mother is recognised only for the custody of children below five. In case of illegitimate children, the mother has a better claim than the putative father. The act makes no distinction between the person of the minor and his property and therefore guardianship implies control over both.

Under the Muslim Law, the father enjoys a dominant position. It also makes a distinction between guardianship and custody. For guardianship, which has usually reference to guardianship of property, according to Sunnis, the father is preferred and in his absence his executor. If not executor has been appointed by the father, the guardianship passes on to the paternal grandfather to take over responsibility and not that of the executor. Both schools, however, agree that father while alive is the sole guardian. Mother is not recognised as a natural guardian even after the death of the father.

As regards rights of a natural guardian, there is no doubt that father's right extends both to property and person. Even when mother has the custody of minor child. Father's general right of supervision and control remains. Father can, however, appoint mother as a testamentary guardian. Thus, though mother may not be recognised as natural guardian, there is no objection to her being appointed under the father's will.

Muslim law recognises that mother's right to custody of minor children (Hizanat) is an absolute right. Even the father cannot deprive her of it. Misconduct is the only condition which can deprive the mother of this right. As regards the age at which the right of mother to custody terminates, the Shia school holds that mother's right to the Hizanat is only during the period of rearing which ends when the child completes the age of two, whereas Hanafi school extends the period till the minor son has reached the age of seven. In case of girls, Shia law upholds mother's right till the girl reaches the age of seven and Hanafi school till she attains puberty.

The general law relating to guardians and wards is contained in the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. It clearly lays down that father's right is primary and no other person can be appointed unless the father is found unfit. This Act also provides that the court must take into consideration the welfare of the child while appointing a guardian under the Act.

Obligation of a husband to maintain his wife arises out of the status of the marriage. Right to maintenance forms a part of the personal law.

Under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, (2 of 1974), right of maintenance extends not only to the wife and dependent children, but also to indigent parents and divorced wives. Claims of the wife, etc., however, depends on the husband having sufficient means. Claim of maintenance for all dependent persons was limited to Rs. 500 per month. But, this limit was removed by the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2001 (No. 50 of 2001). Inclusion of the right of maintenance under the Code of Criminal Procedure has the advantage of making the remedy both speedy and cheap. However, divorced wives who have received money payable under the customary personal law are not entitled to claim maintenance under the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Under Hindu Law, the wife has an absolute right to claim maintenance from her husband. But she loses her right if she deviates from the path of chastity. Her right to maintenance is codified in the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956. In assessing the amount of maintenance, the court takes into account various factors like position and liabilities of the husband. It also judges whether the wife is justified in living apart from husband. Justifiable reasons are spelt out in the Act. Maintenance pendente lite (pending the suit) and even expenses of a matrimonial suit will be borne by either, husband or wife, if the other spouse has no independent income for his or her support. The same principle will govern payment of permanent maintenance.

Under the Muslim Law, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 protects rights of Muslim women who have been divorced by or have obtained divorce from their husbands and provides for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. This Act, inter alia, provides that a divorced Muslim woman shall be entitled to:

* Reasonable and fair provision and maintenance to be made and paid to her within the iddat period by her former husband
* Where she herself maintains children born to her before or after her divorce, a reasonable and fair provision and maintenance to be made and paid by her former husband for a period of two years from the respective dates of birth of such children
* An amount equal to the sum of mehr or dower agreed to be paid to her at the time of her marriage or at any time thereafter according to the Muslim Law and
* All property given to her before or at the time of marriage or after her marriage by her relatives or friends or by husband or any relatives of the husband or his friends.

In addition, the Act also provides that where a divorced Muslim woman is unable to maintain herself after the period of iddat, the magistrate shall order directing such of her relatives as would be entitled to inherit her property on her death according to the Muslim Law and to pay such reasonable and fair maintenance to her as he may determine fit and proper, having regard to the needs of the divorced woman, standard of life enjoyed by her during her marriage and means of such relatives and such maintenance shall be payable by such relatives in proportion to the size of their inheritance of her property and at such periods as he may specify in his order.

Where such divorced woman has children, the magistrate shall order only such children to pay maintenance to her and in the event of any such children being unable to pay such maintenance, the magistrate shall order parents of such divorced woman to pay maintenance to her.

In the absence of such relatives or where such relatives are not in a position to maintain her, the magistrate may direct State Wakf Board established under Section 13 of the Wakf Act, 1995 functioning in the area in which the woman resides, to pay such maintenance as determined by him.

The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936 recognises the right of wife to maintenance-both alimony pendente lite and permanent alimony. The maximum amount that can be decreed by the court as alimony during the time a matrimonial suit is pending in court, is one-fifth of the husband's net income. In fixing the quantum as permanent maintenance, the court will determine what is just, bearing in mind the ability of husband to pay, wife's own assets and conduct of the parties. The order will remain in force as long as wife remains chaste and unmarried.

The Indian Divorce Act, 1869 inter alia governs maintenance rights of a Christian wife. The provisions are the same as those under the Parsi Law and the same considerations are applied in granting maintenance, both alimony pendente lite and permanent maintenance.

The Indian Succession Act was enacted in 1925. The object of the Act was to consolidate the large number of laws which were in existence at that time. Laws governing succession to Muslims and Hindus were excluded from the purview of the Act. While consolidating the law in respect of succession, two schemes, one relating to succession to property of persons like Indian Christians, Jews and persons married under the Special Marriage Act, 1954 and the other relating to succession rights or Parsis, were adopted.

In the first scheme, applying to those other than Parsis, in the case of a person dying intestate leaving behind a widow and lineal descendants, the widow would be entitled to a fixed share of one-third of property and lineal descendants shall be entitled to the remaining two-third. This law was amended subsequently with the object of improving rights of widows and it was provided that where the intestate dies leaving behind his widows and it was provided that where the intestate dies leaving behind his widow and no lineal descendant and the net value of the estate does not exceed Rs 5,000, the widow would be entitled to the whole of this property. Where the net value of the estate exceeds Rs 5,000 she is entitled to charge a sum of Rs. 5,000 with interest at four per cent payment and in the residue, she is entitled to her share. The Act imposes no restriction on the power of a person to will away his property.

Under the second scheme, the Act provides for Parsi intestate succession. By the Indian Succession (Amendment) Act, 1991 (51 of 1991), the Act was amended to provide equal shares for both sons and daughters in their parental properties, irrespective of the fact that it was that of the father or that of the mother. It also enables the Parsis to bequeath their property to religious or charitable purposes, etc., without any restrictions. In effect the amended law provides that where a Parsi dies intestate leaving behind a widow or widower as the case may be, and children, the property shall be divided so that the widow or widower and each child receives equal share. Further, where a Parsi dies leaving behind one or both parents in addition to children, or widow widower and children, the property shall be so divided that the parent or each of the parents shall receive a share equal to half the share of each child.

This Act was amended by the Indian Succession (Amendment) Act, 2002. It was felt that section 32 of the principal Act is discriminatory to widows and as such the proviso to section 32 was omitted to remove discrimination in this regard. Section 213 was also amended by this amending Act to make Christians at par with other communities.

The law relating to intestate succession among Hindus is codified in the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (30 of 1956). It extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The remarkable features of the Act are the recognition of the right of women to inherit property of an intestate equally with men and abolition of the life estate of female heirs.

A vast majority of Muslims in India follow Hanafi doctrines of Sunni law. Courts presume that Muslims are governed by Hanafi law unless it is established to be the contrary. Though there are many features in common between Shia and Sunni schools, yet there are differences in some respects. Sunni law regards Koranic verses of inheritance as an addendum to pre-Islamic customary law and preserves the superior position of male agnates. Unlike Hindu and Christian laws, Muslim law restricts a person's right of testation. A Muslim can bequeath only one-third of his estate. A bequest to a stranger is valid without the consent of heirs if it does not exceed a third of the estate, but a bequest to an heir without the consent of other heirs is invalid. Consent of heirs to a bequest must be secured after the succession has opened and any consent given to a bequest during the lifetime of the testator can be retracted after his death. Shia law allows Muslims the freedom of bequest within the disposable third.

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