In a case involving facts that could have been the plot of a soap opera episode or Lifetime Original Movie, a New Jersey court recently held that a husband could annul his marriage due to his wife's equitable, not actual, fraud.
In Easton v. Mercer (names were changed by the court to protect the innocent), plaintiff began dating defendant and, two years later, proposed to her. Defendant's parents objected because they "disapproved of [plaintiff] as a suitable husband for their daughter." True love, however, would not be denied. Without telling defendant's parents, plaintiff and defendant scheduled a small wedding to take place three weeks after plaintiff's proposal. Prior to the wedding, they applied for a marriage license, which was issued seven days later. They then got married in a small ceremony, administered by a reverend, and attended by approximately 15 guests. All of the guests were invited by plaintiff. Defendant did not invite any guests, including her parents, with whom she still lived and who were still unaware that the wedding was taking place. This, as they say, is when the plot thickens.
The parties originally planned to live with plaintiff's parents after the wedding until they could afford a place of their own. However, by the time of the wedding, defendant had decided that she did not want to move in with plaintiff and his parents immediately, but instead wanted to wait a few weeks and continue to live with her parents until she could work up the nerve to tell them about the wedding. Following the wedding, plaintiff and defendant lived apart.
Four weeks later, defendant told plaintiff that she told her parents about the wedding and they pressured her to "renounce her marital plans and remain living with them." Defendant claimed that she did not want to go against her parents' wishes so she changed her mind about the marriage. Plaintiff tried to change her mind to no avail. As a result, plaintiff and defendant lived completely separate lives, never lived together, never reconciled, and never even dated again after their wedding.
Four years later, plaintiff sought to annul the marriage on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation. He claimed that defendant committed fraud as to the "essentials of marriage" by "bowing to parental pressure and abandoning both him and her marital vows." Plaintiff alleged that had he known defendant would change her mind right after the wedding, he never would have gone through with the wedding. Importantly, however, plaintiff did not allege that defendant knowingly deceived him or that she intended to deceive him. As a result, his claim was one for equitable fraud, not actual fraud. The difference between the two is significant. Actual fraud requires a showing of intent to deceive while equitable fraud does not. The remedies are different as well. Equitable fraud is, as the name suggests, an equitable doctrine so the remedies are equitable (i.e., rescission of a contract) not monetary. Finally, before Easton, actual fraud had been recognized by New Jersey courts as a valid basis to annul a marriage, while equitable fraud had not yet been recognized as a valid basis to do so.
In Easton, the court began by observing that the right to an annulment is limited, and a party may only seek an annulment based on one or more of the specific grounds in New Jersey's annulment statute (NJSA 2A:34-1). Several of these were plainly irrelevant to the facts in Easton — neither plaintiff nor defendant were already married when they tried to marry each other, they were not related to each other "within the degrees prohibited by law," neither was "physically and incurably impotent" at the time of their marriage, and neither was under 18 when they wed. But two conditions were arguably implicated. The first permits a court to annul a marriage in the presence of "fraud as to the essentials of marriage," and the second allows annulment "under the general equity jurisdiction of the Superior Court." The court in Easton ultimately concluded that both justified granting plaintiff's request for an annulment.
Again, the court observed that actual fraud regarding the “essentials of marriage” had been recognized as a valid basis to grant an annulment. But, there was no actual fraud in Easton because defendant did not intend to deceive plaintiff. The court held, however, that her actions amounted to equitable fraud, “a concept which permits a court of equity to act in the name of fairness” and allows a court to “assist an innocent plaintiff and render him  whole” when he relies on a defendant’s actions to his detriment. In Easton, defendant’s actions "reflect[ed] the undeniable reality that deep down, [she] never truly had genuine commitment to a marital relationship with plaintiff in the first place." Plaintiff relied on her actions to his detriment, therefore, the court was entitled to make him whole by annulling the marriage.
Defendant blamed her actions on her parents, and while the court did not exactly buy that excuse, it ultimately held that it was irrelevant:
"I do" does not mean "I do after I go home for a few weeks and talk with my parents some more." Whether or not the parents' objections were ultimately the major reason for defendant's decision, the evidence reflects that the most critical and essential element of a true marriage, i.e., an honest desire to marry the other person, simply did not exist here, whether defendant knew and appreciated this point at the time or not. As a result, this marriage failed to launch and never had any reasonable chance to survive.
The court also relied on traditional equitable notions to support its decision. It noted that equity allows a court to rescind or reform a contract when justified. Marriage, according to the court, is "not only a social contract, but one of the oldest and culturally engrained forms of agreements known to humankind." Like it could with any other contract, the court held that it could rescind a marriage when equity required it, and equity required it given defendant’s post-wedding conduct.
The court cautioned that its decision "should not be misinterpreted to suggest that there should be an annulment rather than a divorce in every marriage where it appears after the fact that a party may not have been strongly committed to a spouse or the marital enterprise before the ceremony." Rather, it held that "certain additional factors" justified the result in Easton, including that the marriage "was never ratified by any subsequent conduct of defendant."