The Indian legal framework is largely women-oriented and recognizes the need to extend extraordinary rights and privileges to women subjects. In consonance with the objective of eliminating women's exploitation in society, the Indian laws provide for 'Maintenance' of a woman/female through various legal channels. Maintenance refers to the monetary assistance that a woman is entitled to, by virtue of being recognized as a dependant. Thus, a woman has a right to maintenance as a wife, mother, daughter, widow daughter-in-law etc. This means it is a duty to maintain her, be it her parents, brothers, husband or parents-in-law.
Maintenance is monetary assistance, but it is aimed at ensuring the well-being of the female. It is meant to financially secure and takes care of her necessary expenses. Therefore, the legislature has refrained from fixing a glass-ceiling on the amount. This job is left to the courts, who decide it on case-to-case basis. In case of a wife, the husband is expected to restore his wife to her earlier position of comfort and dignity. This can also mean that he must pay for her educational expenses, if that was the arrangement at the time of the marriage. However, it must be remembered that the amount of maintenance allowed by the court is always dependant on the financial and paying capacity of the husband. This includes his house-hold income as well as share from ancestral property. After the honourable Supreme Court’s Judgment in 2011, couples living in relationships in nature of a marriage (including live-in relationships) are also covered by the following acts. However, in absence of a legal proof of marriage, it becomes difficult to prove the marriage-like relationship. In such a scenario, efforts have to be made to secure reasonable proof of a voluntary marriage-like relationship, preferably, from the community in which the couple lived.
A Hindu wife (Hindu is a wide term here, and excludes only Muslims, Christians, Jews and Parsis) facing abandonment, neglect and cruelty from her husband can claim maintenance under Section 18 of the Hindu Maintenance and Adoption Act. In addition to above, she is also entitled to seek maintenance if her husband has another wife living (called as a bigamous marriage in legal parlance), or she if forced to share the household with another woman sharing a marriage-like arrangement with her husband. Further, if her husband has converted to another religion, she can claim maintenance. A crucial condition here is to extend financial security to the wife along with protection and dignity. Therefore, the wife who is living separately from her husband is an essential condition to get maintenance under the Act. Apart from this, the section also covers widows seeking maintenance. The reasons are not limited to the Act. Infact, the law itself sates that any reason that justifies separate living to ensure safety, security and dignity of the wife/widow can be used to seek maintenance under the act. Further, section 24 of the act allows a wife to seek maintenance even during the proceedings or the hearing for maintenance is on-going (called as interim maintenance).
One of the most common legal channels to seek maintenance is applying for a petition for Maintenance under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It is applicable to women of all religions. The section can be invoked not only by a married woman, but also a wife facing divorce proceedings (interim maintenance), divorced woman but not remarried, daughter and mother. An application for maintenance can be filed either at the court where the husband resides, the couple last resided, resident district of the husband or his wife. For any wife seeking maintenance under Section 125 of the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code), it is important to note the circumstances under which she will be refused grant of maintenance. These include situations where the wife is herself living in an adulterous relationship, or guilty of adultery, wife refuses to live with husband without a valid reason (abandoning husband without valid cause), or has remarried after the divorce. The amount granted under maintenance can also be altered, increased, decreased or set aside if there is any change in the circumstances. For this, an additional application has to be made under section 127 of CrPC.
Apart from above stated legal channels, maintenance can also be claimed by a wife by virtue of Section 36 of the Special Marriage Act. The Special Marriage Act is the legal framework for overseeing inter-faith marriages. Again, interim maintenance can also be sought by the aggrieved wife. The 2005 Domestic Violence Act also allows an aggrieved wife to seek maintenance. This also includes medical and material expenses suffered due to the violence meted out at the female. The maintenance can be sought from the husband and in-laws as well. This is particularly important in times of a pandemic like covid-19, when owing to a country wide lock-down, cases of domestic violence have surged.