Throughout my career as a divorce attorney here in my hometown of East Brunswick, New Jersey, I have countless consultations with folks who are seeking an annulment. From this lawyer’s eye view, most people think that if the marriage is short of duration that this means they may seek an annulment as opposed to a divorce. However, in New Jersey the law is that a party must prove “fraud in the inducement” to marry. In other words, if your spouse purposefully hide information or lied to you in order to “induce” you to marry them, then you qualify for a annulment. The following case explains that, while they are different, both equitable fraud and actual fraud both will allow for an annulment.

In Easton v. Mercer, the Honorable Judge Jones of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Ocean County, addressed yet another case of first impression. He was tasked with answering whether a Family Part has the authority to apply the doctrine of equitable fraud, rather than actual fraud, to annul a marriage. Unlike actual fraud, there is no requirement of actual intent to deceive in equitable fraud.

In the interest of privacy concerns, the court decided to use pseudonyms instead of the parties’ real names, with Easton for the husband, and Mercer for the wife.

Easton and Mercer met in 2008, and dated for over two years. Even though both Easton and Mercer were in their mid-twenties while they were dating each other, both of them still lived with their parents. Easton proposed to Mercer in 2010. While Mercer accepted, her parents were against the marriage. They did not feel that Easton could be a suitable husband. Regardless of her parent’s misgivings, the couple still married in secret, and applied for a marriage license in October 13, 2010. On November 5, 2010, they had a small ceremony at Easton’s home. Easton invited fifteen guests, but Mercer did not invite anyone, not even her parents, even though she still lived with them.

Easton maintained that they had both decided on living together at his parent’s house, until such time they could afford a home of their own. Mercer changed her mind, however, just prior to the wedding date, and expressed that instead of moving in with Easton right away, she wanted to wait a couple weeks after the wedding, so that she could first inform her parents that she had gotten married. As such, after the wedding ceremony, Mercer went back to her parent’s house, and did not physically live with Easton. While Mercer may have thought informing her parents of her marriage after the fact would be better late than never, it did not work out the way she had planned.

Almost four weeks after the marriage ceremony, Mercer told her parents about her marriage. Needless to say, they did not react well. Mercer’s parents pressured her into rejecting her former marriage plans, and staying with them instead. She told Easton, that due to the delicate circumstances, she did not want to further anger her parents and go against their wishes, and due to pressure from her family, she changed her mind about marriage. Easton’s efforts to change her mind failed, and Mercer never returned to him again.

Initially, neither Mercer, nor Easton took any legal action to end the marriage. Technically, they were still married under their marriage certificate for this whole time, even though for four years they continued to live separate lives. They never made up, bought property together, supported each other, or even dated again. Easton finally filed a complaint for annulment in 2014, almost four years later. He argued that the marriage should be annulled because Mercer committed fraud and misrepresentation. He based his argument on New Jersey’s annulment statute, N.J.S.A 2A:34-1, and maintained that he was legally entitled to an annulment because, by giving into pressure by her parents, and abandoning him and the marriage vows, Mercer committed fraud as to the essentials of marriage. Moreover, Easton stated that if he knew Mercer was going to change her mind right after the wedding ceremony, he would never have agreed to marry her.

Judge Jones explained that annulment is drastically different than divorce. An annulment declares a “marriage” null and void, like it had never occurred, basically stating that there was never a proper marriage to begin with. The right to a legal annulment is quite limited, and will only be granted if: one party already has another spouse; if the marriage is prohibited by law; if one spouse was impotent at the time of marriage, and the other spouse did not know about it; if a spouse could not consent to the marriage because of a mental disability, if a spouse could not consent to the marriage because of intoxication due to drugs or alcohol, duress, or fraud; the party seeking the annulment was under the age of 18 at the time of the marriage; or under the interest of equity and fairness.

Fraud is the most common basis used in annulments. Judge Jones stated that Easton’s allegation of fraud required: (1) a legal determination of what “fraud as to the essentials of marriage,” actually demanded; and (2) an analysis of the specific facts and circumstances in the case. Fraud generally implies a wrongdoing in someone’s intent to mislead someone else. At common law, fraud is comprised of five elements: a misrepresentation of a fact; a defendant’s belief of its falsity; and intention that the other person rely on it; reliance by the other person on that fact; and damage to the other person.

Judge Jones explained that case law is unclear on what the “essentials of a marriage” actually means. That is why the legislature included subsection f in New Jersey’s annulment statute, N.J.S.A 2A:34-1, so that Family Part judges have the authority to order annulments in furtherance of equity and fairness. What is essential to one marriage, may not be as important to another marriage, therefore to determine whether a fraud relates to the essentials of a marriage requires a fact-specific inquiry.

In Easton v. Mercer, there was no evidence that Mercer intended to deceive or mislead Easton. Moreover, Easton did not claim that Mercer tried to trick him into marrying her either. Therefore, there was no actual fraud. Judge Jones, however, found that even thought there was no actual fraud or intent to deceive, there was still never any real marriage between the two. Even though the annulment statute includes fraud, it does not define or limit fraud to only one type. In cases other than annulment, New Jersey courts have acknowledged the existence of equitable fraud. Unlike actual fraud, there is no requirement of an intent to deceive in equitable fraud. Instead, in an action of equitable fraud, a person merely has to prove the falsehood of an important fact, and a detrimental reliance by another person to that fact. The doctrine of equitable fraud allows a court to act in furtherance of fairness. The relief in such a case would not try to punish the defendant, but rather help an innocent plaintiff become whole again through equitable and just relief. A remedy for an action of equitable fraud might be the rescinding of a contract, compared to actual fraud where the court has authority to order money damages.

Not only is marriage a contract, but it is also one of the oldest and important forms of agreement in human history. It most definitely is legally different than other forms of contracts, yet is still a mutual agreement based on basic ideas of trust and commitment to a lasting household partnership. If there is evidence that shows this mutual commitment never existed, and the “spouses” never actually presented themselves as a married couple for any consequential length of time, then using the equitable fraud doctrine to annul the marriage can appropriate and equitable, even if the defendant did not possess an actual intent to mislead, defraud, or deceive.

Judge Jones found that in this case even though Mercer did ever have an actual intent to deceive Easton, an objective analysis of the evidence and facts showed that she never really had a true commitment to a marriage with Easton. The judge based this conclusion on Mercer’s actions right after the ceremony, that she had to go home for a couple weeks to just tell her parents about her marriage. However, instead of telling them and moving in with Easton, she just moved back in with her parents, and never tried to retain any type marriage relationship with Easton. She was in her mid-twenties, and if she was truly committed to the marriage she would not need her parent’s permission to live with Easton as husband and wife. This coupled with the fact she did not invite any other family or friends to the wedding ceremony further cemented that the most important element of a real marriage, the honest and true desire to marry the other person, did not exist.

Family Part courts, being courts of equity, have the authority to craft remedies to fit the varying circumstances of each case. The purpose of this authority is to make sure that a fair result is ordered after a complete finding of the facts. Therefore, the Family Part of Ocean County granted Easton’s complaint for an annulment on the grounds of equitable fraud.

To learn more about annulments here in New Jersey, please contact my office today.