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Joanna L. Grossman

Annulments Based on Fraud: What is the "Essence" of Marriage? Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns on Traditional and Modern Annulment


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Larry and Joy Farr were married for thirty years--the first time around. Then, in 2007, three years after getting a divorce, they remarried. But this time, their marriage only lasted three years, at which point he filed for divorce and she cross-filed for an annulment -- a declaration that their second marriage was invalid from the get-go.

According to Joy, she only agreed to remarry Larry based on his representation that he had a terminal illness; she didn't want him to die alone. But he survived, and she cried foul. The second marriage, she alleged, had been based on fraud -- a false representation that he would soon be dead.

Is this type of misrepresentation, if proven, grounds for annulment? A Colorado appellate court said yes, in Farr v. Farr. In the first part of this two-part series, I will discuss the traditional doctrine of annulments based on fraud and the ways in which courts kept a tight leash on such claims. In Part Two, I will discuss the shift towards a more lenient definition of fraud that is exemplified by the ruling in Farr, an opinion I will analyze in detail.

What is an Annulment?

Divorce, as we all know, is the usual remedy for a failed marriage. One spouse petitions for a divorce alleging, depending on the state's requirements, either "irreconcilable differences," a period of separation, or one of the enumerated types of marital "fault." A decree of divorce dissolves a marriage that was validly contracted, but ultimately failed.

Annulment is another way of ending a marriage. As with divorce, a decree of annulment ends a marriage. But, unlike with divorce, a decree of annulment declares that no valid marriage ever existed because of some defect at its inception.

Annulment is another way of ending a marriage. As with divorce, a decree of annulment ends a marriage. But, unlike with divorce, a decree of annulment declares that no valid marriage ever existed because of some defect at its inception.

Compared with divorce, annulments have always been relatively rare, although they often appeal to devout Roman Catholics who, if a first marriage is annulled, can then remarry without objection from the Church. Today, we hear little about annulments unless they involve famous Catholic politicians trying to pave the way to religious remarriage, or celebrities trying to avoid the obligations of ill-considered quickie marriages contracted, often drunkenly, in Vegas.

Annulments are, in theory, tightly regulated. Each state provides specific circumstances in which a marriage can be annulled. Typical grounds for annulment include: bigamy, impotence, infancy, mental incompetence, incest, fraud, and duress-all impediments to lawful marriage that must have existed at the time the union was celebrated to be valid grounds. If one of the more serious defects in this list exists -- bigamy or incest, for example -- then the marriage is void whether or not either party ever files for a decree of annulment.

Annulments Based on Fraud: The Traditional Approach

The history of the law involving annulments based on fraud is instructive. Even going quite far back in American history, annulment laws in this country have generally included "fraud" as one of the available grounds. But not every proven case of deception results in a decree of annulment. Courts have often refused to nullify marriages for fraud if the innocent party was willfully blind to the truth or too easily fooled by statements made during courtship.

Courts also require that the fraud induce the marriage: The duped spouse had to show that he or she genuinely relied on the misrepresentation in deciding to go through with the marriage. An appellate court in Missouri denied an annulment in Blair v. Blair in 2004, even though the wife fraudulently misrepresented to her husband, before he agreed to marry her, that he was the father of her child. The court concluded that he had other reasons for marrying her and thus did not rely on the misrepresentation in making his decision.

A Washington state court likewise refused an annulment in its 1991 decision in Radochonski v. Radochonski to a husband whose wife had deceived him about her plans to continue dating another man while married and about an alleged secret purpose for marriage: to gain permanent residency status in the United States. He was unable to prove, however, that he relied on her misrepresentations or concealments in deciding whether to marry her.

Even when a solid case of fraud is proven, courts might decide that it is outweighed by countervailing factors. A long marriage is harder to annul than a short one; a consummated marriage is harder to annul than an unconsummated one; and a marriage that has produced children was harder to annul than one with an empty nest.

Perhaps the most important limitation built in to the traditional approach to fraud-based annulments is the requirement that the misrepresentation relate to an essential aspect of marriage. Courts did not, for the most part, apply traditional contract principles when defining fraud in the marriage context. (Those principles would allow rescission of a contract for fraud that is material -- i.e., an intentional misstatement but for which the defrauded party would have refused to enter into the agreement.) But "fraud" in the annulment context was generally construed more strictly, to include only those misrepresentations that went to the heart of marriage - and not just the particular marriage in question, but any marriage.

The so-called "essentials of the marriage" test that was followed in most states dates to an 1862 Massachusetts case, Reynolds v. Reynolds. In that case, the court granted an annulment to Michael Reynolds, whose wife, Bridget, had passed herself off as "chaste and virtuous," while secretly being pregnant with another man's child. Had Bridget merely been "defiled and debauched," the court reasoned, Michael would have no right to an annulment because misrepresentations as to "character, fortune, health or temper," or other "accidental qualities" would not be enough to make a marriage voidable. But Bridget's sin was greater, in the court's eyes, because it undermined her husband's implicit "right to require that his wife shall not bear to his bed aliens to his blood and lineage." Moreover, the court noted, as a pregnant woman, she was "incapable of bearing a child to her husband at the time of her marriage," and thus "unable to perform an important part of the contract." Her concealed pregnancy thus went to the "essentials of the marriage."

As it developed in most states, the "essentials of the marriage" test tended to restrict annulments based on fraud to those cases involving misrepresentations about sex or procreation - those matters that were fundamental to the very definition of marriage. Thus, plaintiffs who alleged that their spouses lied about pregnancy, infertility, impotence, frigidity, venereal disease, or their willingness to have children were more successful in obtaining annulments than those who complained of misrepresentations about wealth, character, alcoholism, or other serious but not, in courts' eyes, fundamental matters. As one court noted, it is not enough to support an annulment based on fraud to prove that a husband denied having a drinking problem and yet "turned out to be . . . a lazy, unshaven disappointment with a drinking problem." Divorce is the remedy for the usual disappointments of marriage.

Fraud-based annulments were also sometimes granted -- as I discussed in a previous column -- for misrepresentations about race, ancestry, and religion, qualities that were once believed to be of critical importance to a decision to marry.

A New Modern Approach?

Today, annulments based on fraud are sometimes granted regardless of whether the real test for fraud is met: Judges simply look the other way and treat "fraud" as a catchall mechanism for dissolving hasty or ill-considered marriages. According to some sources, fraud is the most common basis for annulment petitions today.

As I discussed in a column written a decade ago, Darva Conger obtained an annulment of a marriage to a man she met and married during the course of the two-hour television show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? after learning that he had been charged with assaulting a prior girlfriend. Britney Spears obtained an annulment, in a Las Vegas court, of her 50-hour marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander based on "fraud" of unspecified origin. Actress Renee Zellwegger annulled her 128-day marriage to country crooner Kenny Chesney based on fraud as well, leading to rampant speculation in the tabloid press about the subject of the fraud; some guessed that Chesney might be gay. Zellweger issued a press release, however, reassuring fans that "fraud" is "simply legal language . . . and not a reflection of Kenny's character."

But when annulment cases reach appellate courts, courts have to grapple with the doctrine of fraud. Do they still follow the essentials of marriage test? In Part Two of this series, I will argue that there has been at least a subtle shift in doctrine away from the traditional "essentials of the marriage" approach in some jurisdictions. Farr v. Farr, the case mentioned at the beginning of this column, exemplifies this shift.

Joanna Grossman, a FindLaw columnist, is a professor of law and John DeWitt Gregory Research Scholar at Hofstra University. She is the coeditor of Gender Equality: Dimensions of Women's Equal Citizenship (Cambridge University Press 2009), an interdisciplinary collection that explores the gaps between formal commitments to gender equality and the reality of women's lives. Her columns on family law, trusts and estates, and discrimination, including sex discrimination and sexual harassment, may be found in the archive of her columns on this site.

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