Muslim couples need to weigh legal issues entailed by married life.
By Aneesah and Zarinah Nadir
Lady of Justice may be blind, but when entering into marriage, our eyes should be wide open. In good times and bad, situations arise in daily life that can strain even the strongest relationships. Are we prepared to deal with them? Life happens and we must exercise faith and reliance on God. But it also behooves us to be proactive and arm ourselves with the appropriate education and resources to handle the unexpected.
There are many critical issues couples should consider before marriage. Instead, they are oftentimes more consumed with the planning of a wedding, buying the perfect dress, or worrying about who to invite than discussing those issues that have a long-term effect on the marriage. Along with a lack of preparation among Muslims for common marital issues—such as communication, finances, parenting and intimacy—couples are rarely equipped to address the legalities that arise out of married life. In America, it is important to understand ways the law impacts you as an individual, as a married couple and as a parent.
Identify and Acquire the Skills
Healthy marriages require spiritual development, communication and relationship building skills, parenting skills, financial management skills, family health and wellness education, as well as opportunities to discuss mutual and divergent expectations. Even seemingly trivial matters, like who will do the dishes, take out the trash and which in-laws will be visited for Eid, need to be sorted out. Views on halal meat, music and ITALICS madhahab (schools of thought) need a fair discussion as couples determine their compatibility and how they will manage differing views on these subjects.
As part of the Islamic Social Services Association’s Sakinah Healthy Marriage Initiative, in partnership with the Muslim Alliance of North America and other communities, key imams and community leaders nationwide have signed the Healthy Marriage Covenant that requires premarital counseling, advisement and education prior to the marriage ceremony. Still too few communities have the resources or have made the commitment to establish Islam-based marriage education programs. Moreover, not enough singles and families have made the commitment to seek the preparation and education necessary for a healthy marriage.
Understand your legal rights
One subject that receives little to no attention, but can have serious consequences throughout the marriage, is a couple’s understanding of the American legal system. Most couples do not know that the American legal system has an impact on their marriage. Nor are couples aware of their legal rights and responsibilities that are triggered the moment they say “I do.”
The reality is the law is a pervasive force always working for or against you; you do not have to be a bad person to be confronted with a legal situation. Prior to marriage, a couple should be cognizant of their legal rights and responsibilities as they journey through the marriage cycle, from courtship through marital dissolution by either death or divorce.
Islam requires writing our agreements, outlining inheritance wishes, and preparing our last Will and Testament (see Quran 2:240,180, 282-283 and 4:6, 11, 176). The Prophet (ITALICS salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam) is reported to have said it is not right for a Muslim with property to bequeath to pass two nights without having a written will with him (Bukhari).
The following scenarios are based on true stories embodying some of the legal issues that can affect the average Muslim family. These couples never intended to face legal problems, but everyday events led to their involvement with the legal system.
Meet Hadia and Omar. After 15 years of marriage, they had to deal with the consequences of the husband’s unresolved criminal charge and immigration issues, which occurred even before the marriage. Eventually Omar was deported and Hadia made the difficult decision to leave her extended family behind in America, and follow him overseas with their four children to keep her family together. This was a legal issue.
Amy and Abdul, after several misjudged financial decisions, experienced their own brush with the legal system when an IRS investigation led to a lien on wages and the possibility of jail time.
Amira and Dawud, parents of two small children, were in the U.S. with no other extended family. One day, they narrowly escaped what could have been a tragic car accident and wondered what would have become of their children if they had both been killed. This, they realized, was a legal situation. They immediately set to prepare their last will and testament.
A young couple left for hajj, leaving their four-year-old behind with a relative. While away, both parents died and left no will in place. Who will now care for the minor child is a legal situation.
Mohamed and his wife decided they couldn’t hold it together any longer. A custody battle ensued to determine primary custody of their minor children. This is a legal situation.
During the course of their marriage, Amina and Ahmad invested in a new business, purchased a home and other real estate. Ahmad fell ill in the midst of the economic downturn. Even though Amina worked full time, the couple faced an intense strain on their financial situation. After missing one too many payments, their home was on the verge of foreclosure and the business was in trouble. The couple realized they were facing a legal situation.
Syed is a cab driver. One day, he was involved in an accident where he received a traffic citation and criminal charges. Due to the criminal charges, his cab was grounded and he was unable to work to support his wife and children. Syed realized he had a legal situation.
Sadia fell one day while carrying her toddler. The toddler’s femur was injured and she and her husband rushed the baby to the hospital. The hospital staff reported the injury to Child Protective Services as they are required to do. Not only is the couple worried about the health of their child, but now Sadia has been charged with child abuse. Sadia is facing a legal situation.
Aside from these situations, Muslims have also reported time and again about being questioned by law enforcement and sometimes detained or incarcerated as a result.
Get Legal Advice
The reality is legal concerns can impact marriages and families in many ways. Not all legal situations are negative. It is important to seek legal advice for any number of situations, including the making of financial decisions, and before signing contracts, from purchases of a gym membership to the purchase of a house.
But, when a legal situation is more traumatic, many families are left emotionally challenged to hold it together in the midst of long, drawn out legal cases. Wives and children may be left without the support of their husband and father in the event of incarceration. Some legal situations ruin the family reputation and a once financially secure family may be devastated by court costs and emotional harm. Just as one severe medical situation could devastate a family’s budget, so too could one severe legal case. It is imperative that singles and married couples recognize the importance of their involvement with the legal system and prepare themselves to handle everyday legal situations—especially traumatic ones.
Ask the Important Questions
During the premarital phase, when you are getting to know your future spouse, it is important to ask about legal concerns that may affect the future marriage. Inquiring about unresolved debts, tax issues, previous incarceration, pending lawsuits, previous marriages, parenting plans for children from previous relationships, large business deals and immigration status are just some of the important issues singles will want to discuss before marriage. It is also essential to know whether or not your state is a community property or separate property state. Ownership of assets and liabilities for debts accrued during the course of the marriage by one or both spouses will be determined by this legal designation.
It is essential that couples know their legal rights and responsibilities. As Muslims in America, it is doubly important to understand how to use the tools found in the American legal system to secure our Islamic rights and responsibilities. Singles should become educated about their potential legal concerns before marriage and how they may impact the marriage. Ideally, everyone will have access to a law firm with attorneys who are experts in a range of areas couples will need advice about. Unfortunately, most couples will not be able to afford the high hourly costs, which may present a barrier to legal access. Even consultation on a simple question may eat away any extra income a family has if they consult with attorneys at hourly rates of $300 (on average) or more.
In addition to pro bono legal service clinics provided by community lawyers, it is wise for couples to budget for the low monthly cost of legal coverage plans to address the myriad of everyday legal questions they will have throughout their marriage. A legal coverage plan allows couples to pay for high quality legal services at a low, flat monthly fee. Legal plans are becoming increasingly available through employee benefits and independent agents.
Aneesah Nadir, MSW is a social worker and Zarinah Nadir is an attorney. Both are long-time community activists. They are independent associates of LegalShield, providing legal coverage plans.