As part of our Divorce Law practice, clients sometimes ask about annulments and something called “marital fraud”. Clients sometimes want to know if they need to get a divorce or if they could just get an annulment. Frequently, those people accuse their spouse of committing fraud regarding the marriage.
Almost all actions to dissolve a marriage are the product of divorce. It is very rare for someone to get an annulment (or a bed & board divorce, which is an antiquated form a legal separation). Many people have heard the term “annulment” at some point in their lives. However, an annulment has a very different meaning in the religious arena versus the New Jersey legal system. Religious annulments (and similar concepts) are completely separate from New Jersey law. Religious leaders are free to grant annulments based on their religious practices, and this has very little affect, if any, on the legal status of a marriage.
Under New Jersey law, an annulment may be granted for and of the reasons that are outlined in the statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-1. To summarize, they are basically grounds for dissolving the marriage for reasons that made the original marriage void from the beginning. For example, one person was already married, or they were too young to get married. In such a case, the marriage could be annulled, i.e. it’s like it never even happened. Divorce is different; in a divorce the marriage is dissolved for one of the reasons in the divorce but all agree that the original marriage still happened and had legal consequences.
One of the grounds for an annulment is marital fraud, which is a fraud that goes to the essentials of the marriage. For example, annulments have been granted when one person misrepresented their desire no to have children, and when a person misrepresented their heroin addiction, and when a person misrepresented their religious affiliation. These things go to the heart of a marriage relationship. On the other hand, things like concealed finances, concealed criminal record, concealed prior children, and similar acts of dishonesty are not cases of marital fraud.
An interesting case came before the court recently in Easton v. Mercer. In that case, the couple was young and each lived with their parents. The wife’s parents did not approve of the marriage, but they planned to marry anyway and planned for the couple to live in the husband’s parents’ house. The ceremony was very small and the wife told the husband that she hadn’t yet told her parents and that she wanted to wait a while before doing so. They never lived together, never shared assets, and the wife succumbed to her parents’ pressure and ended the relationship.
The husband filed for an annulment on the grounds of marital fraud, i.e. that he would not have married her if he had known that she planned to wait for parental approval and would leave him if that approval never came. The judge ruled that marital fraud does not require proof that one intended to deceive the other. However, the evidence showed the undeniable reality that deep down the wife was never truly committed to getting married, and in this particular case, the husband was entitled to an annulment. Pointedly, the judge stated, “‘I do’ does not mean ‘I do, after I go home for a few weeks and talk with my parents some more.'”