By Kunle Edun
A married woman under the Marriage Act (Cap M6) LFN, 2004 has a right to partake in the sharing of matrimonial properties (properties acquired by the couple during the course of the marriage) upon the death of the husband or divorce.
See the cases of Petit vs. Petit (1970) AC 777; Hine vs. Hine (1962) 1 WLR 1124 @ 1127; Nwanya vs. Nwanya (1987) 3 NWLR PT 62 @ 697; Kaffi vs. Kaffi (1986) 3 NWLR PT 27 @ 175. See also the Administration of Estates Law of the various States in Nigeria. These cases were decided on the strength of section 17 of the Married Women Property Act 1882 (a law of general application) which provides that “in any question between husband and wife as to the title or possession of property either party ….may apply….to the court …and the judge may make such order with respect to the property in dispute…as he thinks fit..”.
A similar provision is section 72 of the Matrimonial Causes Act Cap M7,LFN 2004 which provides that “ The Court may, in proceedings under this Act, by order require the parties to the marriage, or either of them, to make, for the benefit of all or any of the parties to, and the children of, the marriage, such a settlement of property to which the parties are, or either of them is ,entitled (whether in possession or reversion) as the court considers just and equitable in the circumstances of the case”
Under the Just and Equitable doctrine of section 72 of the MCA, married women under the Act are adequately protected, though due to some reasons, which may include inadequate knowledge and expertise in matrimonial proceedings or lack of courage, some family courts hardly invoke these beneficial provisions to protect the married woman. In determining whether the wife actually contributed to the family’s wealth, the courts have decided in the following cases: Backhouse vs. Backhouse (1978) 1 ALL ER 1158; Nixon vs. Nixon (1969) 1 WLR 1676; Coker vs. Coker (1964) LLR 188etc that the contribution of the wife does not necessarily have to be direct, substantial or financial. The moral support of the wife, catering for the needs of the man and children and managing the home has been held to have money’s worth. Therefore, the saying, behind every successful man there is a woman is more apt here and glorifies the worth of women in marriage.
The Court has the sole discretion in the apportionment of the properties and in exercising this discretion a lot of factors are considered, which may include whether, the wife is working and earning enough to cater for herself, her financial contribution towards acquiring the properties, whether she has other properties of her own, her age and the duration of the marriage. The Court is expected to be fair and just in sharing the properties, so there is no hard and fast rule about it.
Therefore, the widely held view that in the event of dissolution of a statutory marriage, the wife (even if she is just a house-wife) will leave the marriage empty-handed is not the correct position of the law. Such thoughts should be perished. Upon marriage the couple becomes one and in the event of dissolution of the marriage, both are entitled to a share in the properties acquired by both in the course of the marriage.
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