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    Refunds Allowed! China’s Top Court Clarifies When ‘Bride Prices’ Should be Returned

    The custom of paying money to a bride’s family as a condition for marriage is a longstanding one in China, but rising prices and high-profile disputes have made it a focus of both the courts and local officials.

    China’s top court issued draft regulations on handling disputes over bride prices on Monday, affirming that the length of cohabitation will be the determining factor in deciding whether the bride price should be returned in cases of divorce or separation.

    Bride prices are common in China, where the groom gives money or other gifts such as gold or jewelry to his future wife’s family as a requirement for marriage. However, the traditional custom has come under scrutiny in recent years due to exorbitant bride prices being seen around the country.

    The document, released by the Supreme People’s Court for public comments, specifies the circumstances in which bride prices should be returned to the groom, as well as factors in determining the return amount.

    “The new judicial interpretation is not only more flexible, but also more scientific and considerate,” Ye Mingyi, a professor from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics specializing in family law, told Sixth Tone.

    According to the document, Chinese courts should not just focus on whether a couple are legally married in adjudicating disputes, but take a more comprehensive assessment of the bride price amount, the length of cohabitation, how the bride price was used, and whether they have children.

    Currently, courts will support a request for the return of a bride price when one of three conditions is met under the Civil Code: the marriage is unregistered, the marriage is registered but without cohabitation, or the bride price “is causing difficulties” in the groom’s life.

    The current judicial interpretation is too simple and unreasonable, said Ye, as couples in real life may live together for years without registering for marriage, while registered couples may only live together for a short period of time.

    “The new draft emphasizes a quantitative factor, which is to look at not only whether a couple live together, but also the length of time they have been living together,” said Ye.

    Another challenge in handling such disputes is that different regions have their own customs and practices, said Ye. The Supreme People’s Court therefore calls for lower courts to take into consideration local customs and the financial situation of the gifter’s family when deciding whether a bride price is reasonable.

    In one of the four model cases published by the court the same day, a groom’s request for 80% of the bride price to be returned after living together for over three years and having a son without registering for marriage was rejected.

    In its commentary, the court emphasized that the couple’s cohabitation “should not be ignored,” even though they were not legally married.

    Rising bride prices have become a source of controversy in China in recent years, with many deeming the practice outdated and a factor behind falling marriage rates, particularly in rural areas.

    “Through handling a large number of disputes, it can be seen that high bride prices don’t guarantee a family’s happiness,” Chen Yifang, a judge from the Supreme People's Court, said at a press conference on Monday.

    “Instead, they may trigger conflicts and disputes, such as between two families, thereby affecting social harmony and stability.”

    A 2022 study of bride price disputes found that bride prices in China are typically three to ten times more than the gifter’s annual disposable income, with 68.99% of cases involving between 50,000 and 150,000 yuan ($6,980-$20,910), and 22.15% of cases between 150,000 to 250,000 yuan.

    A search of China Judgments Online, an official database of court judgements, shows over 140,000 cases involving disputes over the return of bride prices. According to Chen, the number of bride price disputes has increased in recent years, also resulting in several criminal cases.

    As China’s marriage rate has fallen to record lows, the government has sought to reduce the financial burden of marriages. Dozens of cities and districts around the country have introduced marriage custom reforms to tackle exorbitant wedding and bride prices this year, after the central government made it a national priority in February.

    For example, Jingyuan County in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region has trialed capping bride prices at 60,000 yuan, while Dingxi City in Gansu province has introduced a 50,000 yuan cap and limited weddings to last no more than two days.

    Editor: Vincent Chow.

    (Header image: IC)