While it is not as common in traditional western weddings, the concept of the dowry-that is, a significant, often sizable financial offering of a bride’s family to the groom-is still a major cultural tradition in South Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European societies. However, it is important to note that while a dowry is still an important cultural touchstone, unless the proper steps are taken, it has no legal power in a court of law.

The Canadian Dowry Case

One clear example of how a dowry can go wrong is in the 2014 divorce of Shakiba Banifatemi, an Iranian woman, from Reza Abdollahpour, a Canadian of Iranian descent. The two met in college in 2011, and got married soon after in 2012. As a dowry “reward” for the marriage, Abdollahpour’s parents purchased a CAD1$ million home for the couple and granted the bride, Banifatemi, half-ownership of the home. Unfortunately, by the end of 2013, Banifatemi, unable to tolerate her mother-in-law who lived in the same home, eventually separated and divorced her husband. Her family, angry with this turn of events, eventually demanded that she give up ownership of the home since it was a dowry gift and the marriage had failed. She refused to comply and the argument eventually went to court.

The court, however, decided that because this was a “handshake” agreement, and, in fact, a wedding gift, with no documentation such as a prenuptial agreement to back it up, Banifatemi had no legal obligations to obey. Abdollahpour’s family may have felt that she betrayed cultural expectations by divorcing so quickly, but a dowry’s cultural sanctity has no legal protection in court. Only when it is backed up, in black and white, as part of a prenuptial agreement can any kind of repatriation on a dowry be legally possible.

This is why, for couples that come from cultures and traditions where dowries are part of a marriage, it may be prudent to get in touch with a family attorney to see how this cultural touchstone can be worked into a legal document.