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Tuesday, Jul. 11, 2000

Darva Conger and the 49 other would-be brides on Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" must have felt safe, knowing that they had signed an "annulment agreement" before they went on the show. They must have been comforted by the belief that they could always "enforce" that agreement to void their marriage, if they had second thoughts. Their safety and comfort, however, were only illusions -- for their agreements were legally void from the moment they signed them.

The world now knows that Darva and Rick Rockwell's honeymoon was disastrous; that as a result Darva sought an annulment; and that eventually she got one. What the world doesn't know is that, legally, Darva's getting an annulment was by no means a sure thing.

Why Annulment Agreements Don't Work

An annulment is a declaration that no valid marriage exists because a defect existed at the time the union was created. (A divorce, in contrast, dissolves a once-valid marriage that has failed.)

Only a judge can give you a civil annulment, and only on narrow grounds. (A canonical annulment is granted by the church and has no legal effect on a marriage.) An annulment may be granted because a marriage is void -- that is, inherently invalid. In most states, for example, bigamy and incest void a marriage. An annulment may also be granted if a marriage is voidable -- which means that the marriage, while not inherently void, can be voided by a court if one of the parties chooses to seek an annulment. In most states, a marriage is voidable if it was accomplished through fraud, or if a party is insane, impotent, or under the age of consent.

a factor. Indeed, consent, while relevant to many divorce proceedings, is entirely irrelevant to an annulment proceeding. Thus, Darva and Rick's "annulment agreement" had no legal effect at all.

The Legal Basis For Darva and Rick's Annulment

Then how did Darva and Rick get an annulment? The answer is that they had to state and prove to a judge that legal grounds for an annulment existed.

The grounds for obtaining an annulment vary from state to state. The courts of Delaware and Colorado, for example, would have permitted an annulment had Darva been able to prove that she had entered the marriage on a "jest or dare," not unlikely in this case. Had Darva been a resident of West Virginia, she might have been able to make a somewhat creative -- but ultimately self-defeating -- argument for an annulment on the ground that she was a prostitute. (After all, she did marry solely for money, and most marriages are consummated.)

In Michigan or Mississippi, Darva could have fallen back on "idiocy" as a ground for annulment. Unfortunately, however, those states require not that the marriage be idiotic (self-evident here), but that one of the parties be an idiot -- that is, someone who is severely mentally disabled (somewhat harder to prove here). And given the late disclosures relating to Rick's financial status, Delaware might have permitted an annulment of a marriage between two paupers. Darva could also have petitioned for an annulment based on failure to consummate the marriage (Rick desperately wanted to; she desperately did not), but unless she could prove Rick to be impotent, only a few states like Ohio or Alaska would recognize her claim.

But, alas, Darva petitioned for annulment in Clark County, Nevada. Despite its reputation for lax marriage and divorce laws, Nevada retains a more traditional approach to annulment. Marriages may be annulled only upon proof of incompetence, fraud, or a variety of equitable grounds, such as duress or mistake. Darva chose fraud, based on Rick's alleged failure to disclose his "history of problems with prior girlfriends," a history that Darva was unable to explore during the commercial break that separated the couple's first meeting from their marriage.

Darva's case for fraud was weak, because she was willfully blind to the possibility that her knight in shining armor would turn out to be something less than advertised. Indeed, much of the show's excitement was generated by the women's willingness to marry a perfect stranger solely because he was rich. Few in the viewing audience would, in the judge's shoes, have been sympathetic to Darva's complaint that she didn't know what she was getting into when she married Rick (any more than the viewing audience of "Survivor" would be sympathetic to a player's complaint that he had to resort to eating rats to survive). Those were the rules of the game, and everyone knew them from the outset.

Perhaps realizing there wasn't really any fraud here, the judge declined to grant the annulment on the papers -- the typical procedure -- and instead held a hearing. In the end, however, he did what judges did for decades before the adoption of no-fault divorce: He simply looked the other way. And the annulment was granted -- leaving Darva free to say goodbye Rick, hello Playboy.

Future brides, beware: You may not be so lucky.

Joanna Grossman is an associate professor of law at Hofstra Law School.

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