Visit The University of Texas homepage
Visit the Tarlton Law Library homepage
Aztec and Maya Law

Maya Family Law

Maya family law appears to have been based on customary law. Maya men and women usually got married at around the age of 20, though women sometimes got married at the age of 16 or 17. Maya marriages were frequently arranged by matchmakers, and the father of the groom had to approve the match. The bride and groom were required to have different surnames to ensure that they were not from the same lineage. A dowry was required from the groom’s family, which consisted of clothing and household articles for the bride and groom. Marriage ceremonies were performed by a priest in the home of the bride’s father. After the ceremony, the newlyweds lived with the bride's parents for 6-7 years. The groom was required to work for the family during this time as a form of payment for receiving his wife. The married couple then built a permanent home next to the husband’s parents and lived there until death. Couples were usually monogamous, with the exception of wealthy nobles who practiced polygamy. Divorces were permitted by simply leaving the relationship, and usually occurred when one of the parties was infertile or not carrying out his or her family responsibilities. Widowers and widows were required to remain single for one year after the death of their spouses, and could then remarry without a formal ceremony.

Children were loved and valued by their parents. They were raised at home and were provided with a moral education by their parents. Children were required to go through various religious rites at birth and puberty. After puberty, girls stayed at home until they got married. Boys were sent to live in community dormitories, but would return home each day to work with their fathers. It is not known whether boys received educational training at the dormitories or whether any formal schools existed. However, there is evidence to suggest that children were selected to be apprenticed for certain jobs, including scribes, priests, artists, and masons. This selection was based on social status and aptitude. Women were trained to manage their households, though some worked outside the home as midwives, market vendors, and matchmakers. Noble wives and mothers participated in various rituals related to the ruling class, and there is some evidence to suggest that women may have had governing roles within the various Maya states.

Inheritance property typically passed from father to son. There is also evidence that certain professions, titles, and government offices were passed down from father to son, brother to brother, or uncle to nephew. Women did not have the legal right to inherit property, but could inherit the family’s debts and slavery status. If a man died without a son, property would pass to the deceased’s brothers. If the sons were young when they received their inheritance, a trustee was appointed to manage the property and use the proceeds of the property to support the sons. This was usually one of the brothers of the deceased. Once the heirs reached adulthood, they would receive what remained of the inheritance.

Sources: Foster (2002) and Sharer (1996).