I Want An Annulment!
By Snyder & Sarno on May 13, 2014
In New Jersey, a marriage may be dissolved in one of two ways: divorce or annulment. There is a big difference between these two options. A New Jersey divorce ends a marriage, whereas an annulment nullifies a marriage, meaning it is as if the marriage never existed. Therefore, when a couple gets an annulment, the rights available during a divorce, like alimony or equitable distribution, do not apply because it is as if the couple were never married.
An annulment is only available when the marriage was void or voidable at inception, which applies only in limited circumstances. Those circumstances and other issues related to obtaining an annulment were explored by a recent case, Nadhir v. Nadhir.
In this case, the plaintiff submitted a marriage license with what she indicated was the defendant’s signature in 1983. However, the defendant contended that he was incarcerated at that time and that it was not in fact his signature, but did not acknowledge any other problems with the document. The defendant also had a blood test, as did the plaintiff, which was required in 1983 in order to obtain a marriage license. After this, the parties obtained their marriage license and participated in a religious ceremony, after which the officiate and two witnesses signed the couple’s marriage license. From 1983 until 2011, the parties lived together and held themselves out to be husband and wife. They had a child, owned property and bank accounts jointly, filed joint tax returns, and the defendant provided the marriage license to his employer so that the plaintiff could be covered under his health insurance policy.
In 1984, the defendant did discover that the plaintiff misrepresented his signature on the marriage license, but he did not challenge the validity of the marriage license until 18 years later, in 2012, after the plaintiff filed a divorce complaint. The defendant claimed that, because of the fraudulent signature, the couple’s 29 year marriage was void.
The New Jersey Appellate Division began its analysis by acknowledging that a misrepresentation in a marriage license only voids the marriage if a statute so requires. The Court then examined N.J.S.A. 37:1-2 through 37:1-8 and 37:1-10. None of those statutes provide that a marriage is void due to a fraudulent misrepresentation on a marriage license application. Further, N.J.S.A. 37:1-10 states that a marriage is only void if the couple does not obtain a marriage license before participating in a religious ceremony. Because the couple’s actions did not fall under any of the statutes, the Appellate Division found that it was not void under those provisions.
The Court next turned to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-1(1)(d), which governs when an annulment may be granted. The grounds covered under that statute include: concealment of a fixed determination not to have children, misrepresentation of religion, concealment of a drug addiction, concealment of pregnancy by another man, concealment of a mental condition, concealment of impotence, concealment of a hereditary chronic medical condition, and concealment of a venereal disease. None of those grounds were satisfied by the parties in Nadhir.
Next, the Court determined that even if one of the statutes applied to the couple, the defendant had ratified the marriage license application and the marriage license because he submitted to the blood test, continued to hold the plaintiff out as his wife even after discovering the fraudulent misrepresentation in the marriage license, owned property and filed taxes jointly with the plaintiff, and provided his employer with the marriage license to cover the plaintiff under his health insurance. Because the defendant ratified the marriage, even if it were void under one of the statutes, the Court would not have voided the marriage.
Finally, the Court applied the doctrine of laches, which denies “a party enforcement of a known right when the party engages in an inexcusable and unexplainable delay in exercising that right to the prejudice of the other party.” Here, the defendant delayed so long in exercising his right, if he’d had one under the statute, that there would be prejudice to the plaintiff if his right were enforced.
The takeaway from this case is that an annulment is only available under the specific circumstances described above. However, even if you satisfy one of those circumstances, the court may still deny you an annulment if you ratified the marriage or, if after learning of the reason that the marriage is void, you wait too long to challenge the validity of your marriage and to allow you an annulment would prejudice your husband or wife. If the court denies you an annulment and you still wish to dissolve your marriage, you will have to file for a New Jersey divorce.
If you have questions or concerns about the validity of your marriage, or if you are considering either an annulment or a New Jersey divorce, you should contact the experienced New Jersey divorce lawyers at Snyder & Sarno at (973) 274-5200.
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