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Are You Seeking an Annulment of Your Marriage?

  The Blog at LaurentLegal.com provides insight into CA family law issues

In Marriage of Johnston, Brenda sought an annulment of her 20-month marriage to Donald. Brenda alleged that Donald defrauded her into marrying him by hiding his severe drinking problem and his plans to not look for a job and to become “dirty and unattractive” once married. Donald responded that he, too, wanted the marriage to end – but in divorce, not nullity. Who wins?

California’s public policy outreach of making divorce as amicable as possible naturally means a spouse may not sue another spouse emotional distress and other tort damages where the lawsuit is essentially a lover’s quarrel. Lawsuits for such torts as “criminal conversation” are long dead. That, of course, has not stopped spouses and their attorneys from occasionally trying to circumvent these laws. Sometimes, a spouse will style a heartbalm lawsuit against his or her spouse as one for “fraud,” but if the lawsuit is essentially an affair of the heart, the court will dismiss it.

That does not mean you never have a remedy when your spouse has defrauded you. California law permits you to annul your marriage if your spouse deceived you into marrying him or her. However, not all acts of fraud are equal. Only where your spouse never intended to perform a vital marital “duty” will a court annul the marriage.

From Brenda’s description of Donald (above), few would have doubted that he committed some form of “fraud” to get her to marry him. Even the trial judge agreed with Brenda and annulled the marriage. The Court of Appeal, however, reversed the judgment of nullity and entered a judgment of divorce. In so doing, the Court explained that the fraud necessary to support a judgment of nullity is that which goes to the “very essence” of the marriage. In this case, the type of “fraud” that Donald perpetrated against Brenda – hiding that he would become “a lazy, unshaven disappointment with a drinking problem”– did not go to the “very essence” of the marriage.

One might wonder why Brenda bothered to go through all the trouble, embarrassment, and expense of proving that Donald committed fraud. Instead of having to publicize the sordid details of her 20-month marriage, Brenda could have simply petitioned for a standard dissolution of marriage (i.e. a divorce) on the ground that she and Donald had “irreconcilable differences” that resulted in the “irremediable breakdown” of the marriage – something that would have required her to simply affirm on the record that she wished to be single again. In fact, evidence of the details of her marriage would have probably been improper in a standard dissolution.

Donald’s refusal to shower might not have been the only reason Brenda wanted a nullity. She testified that she had executed a deed that transferred title to her home to herself and Donald jointly. In other words, Brenda “transmuted” the property from her separate property to community property. In a dissolution proceeding, the trial court would have had to divide the community property equally. In a nullity proceeding, however, the court would have “erased” the marriage, as though it had never occurred. In the process, the court would have “erased” the deed, too, and the home would have once again been Brenda’s sole and separate property.

If you are interested in exploring your options, whether nullity, dissolution, or legal separation, contact a compassionate family law expert at Laurent Legal today.