Civil annulments, as opposed to annulments granted through a church or religious body, are relatively rare in New Jersey. The rather limited grounds for the civil annulment of a marriage are set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A-34-1. They include (1) either of the parties to the marriage having another spouse/ domestic partner/ partner in a civil union living at the time of the second or other marriage; (2) the parties are within the degrees prohibited by law (i.e. too closely related); (3) physical and incurable impotence at the time of the marriage, provided the party making the application had no knowledge of the impotence or incapability at the time of the marriage; (4) lack of capacity due to intoxication, drugs, or mental condition; (5) a lack of mutual assent to the marital relationship; (5) duress; (6) fraud as to the essentials of the marriage. An annulment may also be granted where the moving party was under the age of 18 at the time of the marriage, unless the marriage is later confirmed by that party after reaching the age of 18. Finally, an annulment may be granted under the “general equity jurisdiction of the Court.”
It is important to note when the Court grants an annulment, the marriage is “void” as if it had never taken place. Therefore, the Court cannot award equitable distribution of property, assets, or liabilities acquired during the marriage. If there are in fact assets or liabilities to divide, it might not make sense for a party to file for an annulment even if the technical legal grounds for one might exist. It is also important to note that even if a defendant defaults in an annulment action, the moving party must still prove to the Court that a valid cause of action for annulment exists; the granting of a Judgment of Nullity is not automatic.
In actual practice, the most frequently cited grounds for an annulment usually center around some type of fraud going to the “essentials of the marriage.” For example, one party might claim that they other party married him or her only for purposes of obtaining citizenship. While this might prove to be successful in a short term marriage with no children, particularly if the parties have either not resided together after the marriage or resided together for only a brief period of time after the marriage, it is usually harder to prove the longer the marriage lasts or if children were born during the marriage. Another frequently encountered scenario involves one party claiming that the other party entered into the marriage not wanting to have children but promising the other party that he or she would try to start a family. Still another frequently seen scenario is when one party represents he or she is one religion but is in fact another.
In an unreported (not precedential) trial court opinion issued by Judge Jones in Ocean County in 2015 in the case of Easton v. Mercer, the court, for the first time in New Jersey, used “equitable fraud” as a basis upon which to grant an annulment, rather than actual fraud. The trial court found that while the wife in this case never had an actual intent to deceive her husband, she also never had a genuine commitment to the marital relationship and this was a marriage “in name only.” The parties never resides together after the marriage, never acquired property together, and did not have children together. Shortly after the marriage ceremony, the wife returned to her parents’ home and she never returned to her husband.
Ultimately, whether or not a fraud has taken place is a very fact-specific matter, particular to each case, and each case will be judged on its merits by the Court. Because of the uncertainty in whether or not a fraud can be proven, or will be accepted by the Court as a legitimate basis upon which to annul the marriage, divorce attorneys frequently file a combined Complaint for Divorce and/or Annulment, as a way of protecting their client in the event the cause of action for annulment cannot proceed. The grounds for a divorce in New Jersey, which are specifically set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2, are much broader, and include adultery, extreme cruelty, 18 months of continuous separation with no prospect of reconciliation, and the most commonly utilized cause of action for divorce in New Jersey, 6 months of irreconcilable differences with no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.
The Law Office of Jeffrey R. Brown has experience in handling both divorce and annulment cases throughout central New Jersey, including Middlesex and Monmouth Counties, where the firm maintains offices. Please call to discuss your matter further.