SC lays down guidelines for grant of maintenance/interim maintenance in family matters

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 4th November 2020, in the matter of Rajnesh v. Neha & Anr. laid down guidelines to ensure that there is uniformity and consistency in deciding an application for grant of maintenance / interim maintenance in family matters.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that:

There are different statutes providing for making an application for grant of maintenance / interim maintenance, if any person having sufficient means neglects, or refuses to maintain his wife, children, parents. The different enactments provide an independent and distinct remedy framed with a specific object and purpose. To address various issues which arise for consideration in applications for grant of maintenance / interim maintenance, it is necessary to frame guidelines to ensure that there is uniformity and consistency in deciding the same. (Part A (iii))

(Part B) Guidelines / Directions on Maintenance

Maintenance laws have been enacted as a measure of social justice to provide recourse to dependant wives and children for their financial support, so as to prevent them from falling into destitution and vagrancy.

The legislations which have been framed on the issue of maintenance are the Special Marriage Act 1954 (“SMA”), Section 125 of the Cr.P.C. 1973; and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (“D.V. Act”) which provide a statutory remedy to women, irrespective of the religious community to which they belong, apart from the personal laws applicable to various religious communities.

Maintenance may be claimed under one or more of the afore-mentioned statutes, since each of these enactments provides an independent and distinct remedy framed with a specific object and purpose. For instance, a Hindu wife may claim maintenance under the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act 1956 (“HAMA”), and also in a substantive proceeding for either dissolution of marriage, or restitution of conjugal rights, etc. under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 (“HMA”) by invoking Sections 24 and 25 of the said Act.

While it is true that a party is not precluded from approaching the Court under one or more enactments, since the nature and purpose of the relief under each Act is distinct and independent, it is equally true that the simultaneous operation of these Acts, would lead to multiplicity of proceedings and conflicting orders. This would have the inevitable effect of overlapping jurisdiction. This process requires to be streamlined, so that the respondent / husband is not obligated to comply with successive orders of maintenance passed under different enactments.

(Part B(I)) Directions on overlapping jurisdictions

It is well settled that a wife can make a claim for maintenance under different statutes. For instance, there is no bar to seek maintenance both under the D.V. Act and Section 125 of the Cr.P.C., or under H.M.A. It would, however, be inequitable to direct the husband to pay maintenance under each of the proceedings, independent of the relief granted in a previous proceeding. If maintenance is awarded to the wife in a previously instituted proceeding, she is under a legal obligation to disclose the same in a subsequent proceeding for maintenance, which may be filed under another enactment. While deciding the quantum of maintenance in the subsequent proceeding, the civil court/family court shall take into account the maintenance awarded in any previously instituted proceeding, and determine the maintenance payable to the claimant.

To overcome the issue of overlapping jurisdiction, and avoid conflicting orders being passed in different proceedings, we direct that in a subsequent maintenance proceeding, the applicant shall disclose the previous maintenance proceeding, and the orders passed therein, so that the Court would take into consideration the maintenance already awarded in the previous proceeding, and grant an adjustment or set-off of the said amount. If the order passed in the previous proceeding requires any modification or variation, the party would be required to move the concerned court in the previous proceeding.

(Part B (II)) Payment of Interim Maintenance

In the first instance, the Family Court in compliance with the mandate of Section 9 of the Family Courts Act 1984, must make an endeavour for settlement of the disputes. For this, Section 6 provides that the State Government shall, in consultation with the High Court, make provision for counsellors to assist a Family Court in the discharge of its functions. Given the large and growing percentage of matrimonial litigation, it has become necessary that the provisions of Section 5 and 6 of the Family Courts Act are given effect to, by providing for the appointment of marriage counsellors in every Family Court, which would help in the process of settlement. If the proceedings for settlement are unsuccessful, the Family Court would proceed with the matter on merits. (Part B (II)(iii))

The party claiming maintenance either as a spouse, or as a partner in a civil union, live-in relationship, common law marriage, should be required to file a concise application for interim maintenance with limited pleadings, alongwith an Affidavit of Disclosure of Assets and Liabilities before the concerned court, as a mandatory requirement. (Part B (II)(iv))

On the basis of the pleadings filed by both parties and the Affidavits of Disclosure, the Court would be in a position to make an objective assessment of the approximate amount to be awarded towards maintenance at the interim stage. (Part B (II)(v))

(Part B (II)(xi)) Keeping in mind the need for a uniform format of Affidavit of Disclosure of Assets and Liabilities to be filed in maintenance proceedings, this Court considers it necessary to frame guidelines in exercise of our powers under Article 136 read with Article 142 of the Constitution of India :

(a) The Affidavit of Disclosure of Assets and Liabilities annexed at Enclosures I, II and III of this judgment, as may be applicable, shall be filed by the parties in all maintenance proceedings, including pending proceedings before the concerned Family Court / District Court / Magistrate’s Court, as the case may be, throughout the country;

(b) The applicant making the claim for maintenance will be required to file a concise application accompanied with the Affidavit of Disclosure of Assets;

(c) The respondent must submit the reply alongwith the Affidavit of Disclosure within a maximum period of four weeks. The Courts may not grant more than two opportunities for submission of the Affidavit of Disclosure of Assets and Liabilities to the respondent. If the respondent delays in filing the reply with the Affidavit, and seeks more than two adjournments for this purpose, the Court may consider exercising the power to strike off the defence of the respondent, if the conduct is found to be wilful and contumacious in delaying the proceedings. On the failure to file the Affidavit within the prescribed time, the Family Court may proceed to decide the application for maintenance on basis of the Affidavit filed by the applicant and the pleadings on record;

(d) The above format may be modified by the concerned Court, if the exigencies of a case require the same. It would be left to the judicial discretion of the concerned Court, to issue necessary directions in this regard.

(e) If apart from the information contained in the Affidavits of Disclosure, any further information is required, the concerned Court may pass appropriate orders in respect thereof.

(f) If there is any dispute with respect to the declaration made in the Affidavit of Disclosure, the aggrieved party may seek permission of the Court to serve interrogatories, and seek production of relevant documents from the opposite party under Order XI of the CPC; On filing of the Affidavit, the Court may invoke the provisions of Order X of the C.P.C or Section 165 of the Evidence Act 1872, if it considers it necessary to do so; The income of one party is often not within the knowledge of the other spouse. The Court may invoke Section 106 of the Evidence Act, 1872 if necessary, since the income, assets and liabilities of the spouse are within the personal knowledge of the party concerned.

(g) If during the course of proceedings, there is a change in the financial status of any party, or there is a change of any relevant circumstances, or if some new information comes to light, the party may submit an amended / supplementary affidavit, which would be considered by the court at the time of final determination.

(h) The pleadings made in the applications for maintenance and replies filed should be responsible pleadings; if false statements and misrepresentations are made, the Court may consider initiation of proceeding u/S. 340 Cr.P.C., and for contempt of Court.

(i) In case the parties belong to the Economically Weaker Sections (“EWS”), or are living Below the Poverty Line (“BPL”), or are casual labourers, the requirement of filing the Affidavit would be dispensed with.

(j) The concerned Family Court / District Court / Magistrate’s Court must make an endeavour to decide the I.A. for Interim Maintenance by a reasoned order, within a period of four to six months at the latest, after the Affidavits of Disclosure have been filed before the court.

(k) A professional Marriage Counsellor must be made available in every Family Court.

(Part B (II)) Permanent alimony

(i) Parties may lead oral and documentary evidence with respect to income, expenditure, standard of living, etc. before the concerned Court, for fixing the permanent alimony payable to the spouse.

(ii) In contemporary society, where several marriages do not last for a reasonable length of time, it may be inequitable to direct the contesting spouse to pay permanent alimony to the applicant for the rest of her life. The duration of the marriage would be a relevant factor to be taken into consideration for determining the permanent alimony to be paid.

(iii) Provision for grant of reasonable expenses for the marriage of children must be made at the time of determining permanent alimony, where the custody is with the wife. The expenses would be determined by taking into account the financial position of the husband and the customs of the family.

(iv) If there are any trust funds / investments created by any spouse / grandparents in favour of the children, this would also be taken into consideration while deciding the final child support.

(Part B (III)) Criteria for determining quantum of maintenance

(i) The objective of granting interim / permanent alimony is to ensure that the dependant spouse is not reduced to destitution or vagrancy on account of the failure of the marriage, and not as a punishment to the other spouse. There is no straitjacket formula for fixing the quantum of maintenance to be awarded. The factors which would weigh with the Court inter alia are the status of the parties; reasonable needs of the wife and dependant children; whether the applicant is educated and professionally qualified; whether the applicant has any independent source of income; whether the income is sufficient to enable her to maintain the same standard of living as she was accustomed to in her matrimonial home; whether the applicant was employed prior to her marriage; whether she was working during the subsistence of the marriage; whether the wife was required to sacrifice her employment opportunities for nurturing the family, child rearing, and looking after adult members of the family; reasonable costs of litigation for a non-working wife. An order of interim maintenance is conditional on the circumstance that the wife or husband who makes a claim has no independent income, sufficient for her or his support. It is no answer to a claim of maintenance that the wife is educated and could support herself. The court must take into consideration the status of the parties and the capacity of the spouse to pay for her or his support. Maintenance is dependent upon factual situations; the Court should mould the claim for maintenance based on various factors brought before it. On the other hand, the financial capacity of the husband, his actual income, reasonable expenses for his own maintenance, and dependant family members whom he is obliged to maintain under the law, liabilities if any, would be required to be taken into consideration, to arrive at the appropriate quantum of maintenance to be paid. The Court must have due regard to the standard of living of the husband, as well as the spiralling inflation rates and high costs of living. 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.

(ii) A careful and just balance must be drawn between all relevant factors. The test for determination of maintenance in matrimonial disputes depends on the financial status of the respondent, and the standard of living that the applicant was accustomed to in her matrimonial home. The maintenance amount awarded must be reasonable and realistic, and avoid either of the two extremes i.e. maintenance awarded to the wife should neither be so extravagant which becomes oppressive and unbearable for the respondent, nor should it be so meagre that it drives the wife to penury. The sufficiency of the quantum has to be adjudged so that the wife is able to maintain herself with reasonable comfort.

(vi) Apart from the aforesaid factors enumerated hereinabove, certain additional factors would also be relevant for determining the quantum of maintenance payable.

(a) Age and employment of parties

In a marriage of long duration, where parties have endured the relationship for several years, it would be a relevant factor to be taken into consideration. On termination of the relationship, if the wife is educated and professionally qualified, but had to give up her employment opportunities to look after the needs of the family being the primary caregiver to the minor children, and the elder members of the family, this factor would be required to be given due importance. This is of particular relevance in contemporary society, given the highly competitive industry standards, the separated wife would be required to undergo fresh training to acquire marketable skills and re-train herself to secure a job in the paid workforce to rehabilitate herself. With advancement of age, it would be difficult for a dependant wife to get an easy entry into the work-force after a break of several years.

(b) Right to residence

Section 17 of the D.V. Act grants an aggrieved woman the right to live in the “shared household”. Section 2(s) defines “shared household” to include the household where the aggrieved woman lived at any stage of the domestic relationship; or the household owned and rented jointly or singly by both, or singly by either of the spouses; or a joint family house, of which the respondent is a member. The right of a woman to reside in a “shared household” defined under Section 2(s) entitles the aggrieved woman for right of residence in the shared household, irrespective of her having any legal interest in the same. The living of the aggrieved woman in the shared household must have a degree of permanence. A mere fleeting or casual living at different places would not constitute a “shared household”. It is important to consider the intention of the parties, nature of living, and nature of the household, to determine whether the premises is a “shared household”. Section 2(s) read with Sections 17 and 19 of the D.V. Act entitles a woman to the right of residence in a shared household, irrespective of her having any legal interest in the same. There is no requirement of law that the husband should be a member of the joint family, or that the household must belong to the joint family, in which he or the aggrieved woman has any right, title or interest. The shared household may not necessarily be owned or tenanted by the husband singly or jointly. Section 19 (1)(f) of the D.V. Act provides that the Magistrate may pass a residence order inter alia directing the respondent to secure the same level of alternate accommodation for the aggrieved woman as enjoyed by her in the shared household. While passing such an order, the Magistrate may direct the respondent to pay the rent and other payments, having regard to the financial needs and resources of the parties.

(c) Where wife is earning some income

The onus is on the husband to establish with necessary material that there are sufficient grounds to show that he is unable to maintain the family, and discharge his legal obligations for reasons beyond his control. If the husband does not disclose the exact amount of his income, an adverse inference may be drawn by the Court.

(d) Maintenance of minor children

The living expenses of the child would include expenses for food, clothing, residence, medical expenses, education of children. Extra coaching classes or any other vocational training courses to complement the basic education must be factored in, while awarding child support. Albeit, it should be a reasonable amount to be awarded for extra-curricular / coaching classes, and not an overly extravagant amount which may be claimed. 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.

(e) Serious disability or ill health

Serious disability or ill health of a spouse, child / children from the marriage / dependant relative who require constant care and recurrent expenditure, would also be a relevant consideration while quantifying maintenance.

(Part B (IV)) Date from which Maintenance to be awarded

There is no provision in the HMA with respect to the date from which an Order of maintenance may be made effective. Similarly, Section 12 of the D.V. Act, does not provide the date from which the maintenance is to be awarded. Section 125(2) Cr.P.C. is the only statutory provision which provides that the Magistrate may award maintenance either from the date of the order, or from the date of application. In the absence of a uniform regime, there is a vast variance in the practice adopted by the Family Courts in the country, with respect to the date from which maintenance must be awarded. The divergent views taken by the Family Courts are : first, from the date on which the application for maintenance was filed; second, the date of the order granting maintenance; third, the date on which the summons was served upon the respondent.

Even though a judicial discretion is conferred upon the Court to grant maintenance either from the date of application or from the date of the order in S. 125(2) Cr.P.C., it would be appropriate to grant maintenance from the date of application in all cases, including Section 125 Cr.P.C. In the practical working of the provisions relating to maintenance, we find that there is significant delay in disposal of the applications for interim maintenance for years on end. It would therefore be in the interests of justice and fair play that maintenance is awarded from the date of the application. The rationale of granting maintenance from the date of application finds its roots in the object of enacting maintenance legislations, so as to enable the wife to overcome the financial crunch which occurs on separation from the husband. Financial constraints of a dependant spouse hampers their capacity to be effectively represented before the Court. In order to prevent a dependant from being reduced to destitution, it is necessary that maintenance is awarded from the date on which the application for maintenance is filed before the concerned Court. It has therefore become necessary to issue directions to bring about uniformity and consistency in the Orders passed by all Courts, by directing that maintenance be awarded from the date on which the application was made before the concerned Court. The right to claim maintenance must date back to the date of filing the application, since the period during which the maintenance proceedings remained pending is not within the control of the applicant.

(Part B (V)) Enforcement of orders of maintenance

Enforcement of the order of maintenance is the most challenging issue, which is encountered by the applicants. If maintenance is not paid in a timely manner, it defeats the very object of the social welfare legislation. Execution petitions usually remain pending for months, if not years, which completely nullifies the object of the law. 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, including civil detention, attachment of property, etc. as provided by various provisions of the CPC, more particularly Sections 51, 55, 58, 60 read with Order XXI. Striking off the defence of the respondent is an order which ought to be passed in the last resort, if the Courts find default to be wilful and contumacious, particularly to a dependant unemployed wife, and minor children. Contempt proceedings for wilful disobedience may be initiated before the appropriate Court.

(Part B (V)) Final Directions

(a) Issue of overlapping jurisdiction

To overcome the issue of overlapping jurisdiction, and avoid conflicting orders being passed in different proceedings, it has become necessary to issue directions in this regard, so that there is uniformity in the practice followed by the Family Courts/District Courts/Magistrate Courts throughout the country. We direct that:

(i) where successive claims for maintenance are made by a party under different statutes, the Court would consider an adjustment or set- off, of the amount awarded in the previous proceeding/s, while determining whether any further amount is to be awarded in the subsequent proceeding;

(ii) it is made mandatory for the applicant to disclose the previous proceeding and the orders passed therein, in the subsequent proceeding;

(iii) if the order passed in the previous proceeding/s requires any modification or variation, it would be required to be done in the same proceeding.

(b) Payment of Interim Maintenance

The Affidavit of Disclosure of Assets and Liabilities annexed as Enclosures I, II and III of this judgment, as may be applicable, shall be filed by both parties in all maintenance proceedings, including pending proceedings before the concerned Family Court / District Court / Magistrates Court, as the case may be, throughout the country.

(c) Criteria for determining the quantum of maintenance

For determining the quantum of maintenance payable to an applicant, the Court shall take into account the criteria enumerated in Part B – III of the judgment. The aforesaid factors are however not exhaustive, and the concerned Court may exercise its discretion to consider any other factor/s which may be necessary or of relevance in the facts and circumstances of a case.

(d) Date from which maintenance is to be awarded

We make it clear that maintenance in all cases will be awarded from the date of filing the application for maintenance, as held in Part B – IV above.

(e) Enforcement / Execution of orders of maintenance

For enforcement / execution of orders of maintenance, it is directed that an order or decree of maintenance may be enforced under Section 28A of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1956; Section 20(6) of the D.V. Act; and Section 128 of Cr.P.C., as may be applicable. The order of maintenance may be enforced as a money decree of a civil court as per the provisions of the CPC, more particularly Sections 51, 55, 58, 60 r.w. Order XXI.

Enclosure I – Affidavit of Assets and Liabilities for Non-Agrarian Deponents

Enclosure I

Enclosure II – Details for Affidavit for Agrarian Deponents (Krishi)

Enclosure II

Copy of judgement: Judgement_04-Nov-2020

-Adv. Tushar Kaushik

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