Annulment of Marriage Based on Fraud
Aug 3, 2015 | Written by: Share|
Can the Court apply the doctrine of equitable fraud as a basis to annul a marriage?
In the recent, but unpublished trial court decision of Easton v. Mercer, Judge Jones in Ocean County decided yes, the court may apply the doctrine of equitable fraud to annul a marriage, which means there is no requirement of a defendant’s intent to deceive a plaintiff.
But what does this mean?
In 2008, Easton and Mercer met and began a dating relationship that lasted for over two years. They were both in their 20’s and still living with their respective parents, approximately one hour apart. In 2010, Easton proposed marriage and Mercer accepted, although her parents objected. Nonetheless, Mercer proceeded to make marriage plans and in October 2010, they applied for a marriage license and wed a month later in a small ceremony. Easton invited approximately 15 guests, but Mercer had no one in attendance and she did not tell her parents of the ceremony.
Easton and Mercer continued to live with their respective parents after the ceremony, but planned to move in together a few weeks later, after she told her parents of the marriage. Four weeks later, Mercer advised Easton that she did not want to go against her parents’ wishes and she would be staying with her parents. Neither party took any action and they technically remained married, even though they lived completely separate and apart for four years. They never reconciled or even dated each other ever again.
In 2014, Easton filed a complaint for annulment of the marriage based on grounds of fraud and misrepresentation. Easton’s claim was that he would not have proceeded with the wedding in the first place if he had known Mercer would change her mind immediately after the wedding. Mercer did not participate in the proceedings.
“Annulment differs radically from divorce in that a judgment of nullity legally declares a prior marriage retroactively null and void, as if having never happened in the first place.” Under the language of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-1, the right to an annulment is limited, and a court may grant same under one of the following conditions:
- Either of the parties has another wife, husband, partner in a civil union couple or domestic partner living at the time of a second or other marriage.
- The parties are within the degrees prohibited by law. If any such marriage shall not have been annulled during the lifetime of the parties the validity thereof shall not be inquired into after the death of either party.
- The parties, or either of them, were at the time of marriage physically and incurably impotent, provided the party making the application shall have been ignorant of such impotency or incapability at the time of the marriage, and has not subsequently ratified the marriage.
- The parties, or either of them, lacked capacity to marry due to want of understanding because of mental condition, or the influence of intoxicants, drugs, or similar agents; or where there was a lack of mutual assent to the marital relationship; duress; or fraud as to the essentials of marriage; and has not subsequently ratified the marriage.
- The demand for such judgment is by the wife or husband, who was under the age of 18 years at the time of the marriage, unless such marriage be confirmed by her or him after arriving at such age.
- Allowable under the general equity jurisdiction of the Superior Court.
Interestingly, the facts of each specific case are essential in determining fraud. The court has granted an annulment when a husband concealed from his wife at the time of the marriage that he was a heroin addict[i]; when a husband had falsely represented prior to marriage that he was a practicing orthodox Jew[ii]; and when a husband falsely represented to his wife prior to marriage that he shared her wish to avoid having children, but after marriage essentially limited contraception[iii]. Other examples of fraud that have led to annulment include a husband who concealed his impotence prior to marriage, and a wife who was pregnant at the time of the marriage and concealed that the father was another man.
Conversely, the court denied an annulment in a case where the husband failed to disclose to the wife prior to marriage that he previously fathered out-of-wedlock children. The court found that the alleged fraud did not go the essentials of the marriage[iv].
“As reflected in the foregoing cases, equitable fraud is a concept which permits a court of equity to act in the name of fairness. The doctrine does not require an intent to deceive, and the granting of relief is designed not to punish a defendant for intentional fraud or wrongdoing, but rather to assist an innocent plaintiff and render him or her whole through applicable equitable relief.”
Diana Fredericks, Esq., is a partner with Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC and has devoted her practice to family-related matters. If you wish to schedule a consultation, contact Ms. Fredericks at 908-735-5161 or via email. In 2015, Ms. Fredericks was named to the NJ Super Lawyers Rising Stars list in the practice of family law by Thomson Reuters, and to the 2015 New Leaders of the Bar list by the New Jersey Law Journal.