Romeo and Juliet, Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark – for some of these star-crossed lovers, their journeys ended with hemlock, in exile, or…well…no spoilers. For Easton and Mercer, their romance ended with an annulment on the grounds of equitable fraud in a lengthy decision delivered by Judge Jones in Ocean County New Jersey in Easton v. Mercer.
The union between Easton and Mercer began like many others. The parties met in 2008 as young twenty-somethings, and began a dating relationship that lasted 2 years. At the time, each were still living in their parents’ homes.
In 2010, Easton proposed to Mercer and she initially accepted. Her parents, however, objected, disapproving of Easton as a “suitable husband” for their daughter.
Even so, over the elder Mercers’ objections, their marriage plans went full steam ahead and the parties planned a small ceremony to take place in 3 months’ time.
In October, 2010, the parties formally applied for a marriage license and the next month they went ahead with their small ceremony, which took place in the home of Easton’s parents. Mercer’s parents were not invited.
While Easton and Mercer had planned to begin their lives together under the same roof, those plans never came to fruition. Mercer advised Easton that she intended to remain residing with her parents until she could “break the news of the marriage to her mother and father after the fact.”
Well, the “after the fact” news was not taken well. Mercer’s parents insisted that she renounce the marriage and remain living with them. While Easton tried to convince Mercer to resume their relationship, his efforts were unsuccessful, and Mercer remained at her parents’ home, “never returning to [Easton] again.”
Yet, for the next 4 years, the parties stayed married and never took any steps to formally dissolve their marriage. Finally, in 2014, Easton filed for an annulment of the marriage on the grounds of fraud as to the essentials of the marriage “by bowing to parental pressure and abandoning both him and her marital vows.”
Many people are unfamiliar with the particulars of annulments. That is for the simple reason that they are not often applied for in our courts, namely because of the limited circumstances that it covers. Instead, divorce is a far more common cause of action for the dissolution of a marriage.
The major difference between an annulment and a divorce is that in an annulment, the facts giving rise to grounds for the dissolution of the marriage typically precede the marriage itself, whereas the causes for divorce arise during the marriage. Annulment also differs radically from divorce in that an annulment legally declares a prior marriage retroactively null and void, as if having never happened in the first place.
The grounds for annulment have historically been very limited; among them are:
(a) Already existing, concurrent marriage of one of the parties
(b) Prohibited degrees of relation
(d) Incapacity to Consent, Duress or Fraud
(e) One of the parties was underage at the time of the marriage
In a case of an allegation of fraud, as was the allegation in the Easton case, New Jersey courts have held that there needed to have been some intention to deceive the other party.
For example, marriages have been annulled where there was premarital fraudulent representation of intent to have children; insistence of having children where the party previously indicated they did not wish to have children; belief that other party would practice Orthodox Judaism but really have no intention of doing so; a history of undisclosed hereditary chronic tuberculosis; and, concealment of a severe heroin addiction.
The common thread among all of the above example is that there was clear intent by one party to deceive the other. However, in the Easton case, such intent could not be found – “on its surface, the evidence does not reasonably support a finding that defendant knowingly intended to deceive plaintiff before the marriage by purposely supplying him with false information.”
But, on the other hand, the Court found that even without this previously required intent to deceive, there was never any real marriage of substance between the parties; the marriage both started and ended with the ceremony itself.
After setting forth the history of equitable fraud as a cause of action, Judge Jones ruled that the marriage could be annulled on the grounds of equitable fraud, even where there is no evidence to suggest that Mercer purposefully sought to lie to or deceive Easton.
He reasoned: “In the present matter, while defendant may not have actually intended to deceive plaintiff, an objectively reasonable analysis of the facts and evidence in this case reflects the undeniable reality that deep down, defendant never truly had a genuine commitment to a marital relationship with plaintiff in the first place.”
While Judge Jones went on to hypothesize at length as to the reasons Mercer could have chosen not to pursue the marriage, he concluded that Easton was deserving of the annulment – “‘I do’ does not mean ‘I do’ after I go home for a few weeks and talk with my parents some more.'”
While this case was one of first impression, Judge Jones reasoned his decision using existing case law and equitable doctrine. This couple never lived together, they were not financially dependent on one another and they never held themselves out as husband and wife. It is important to remember that had these parties undertaken any of the privileges or duties of marriage, the result likely would have been different. However, the facts of the case certainly justified an annulment on equitable grounds.
Judge Jones has been known for his lengthy and well-reasoned decisions, often pioneering areas of family law, and frankly, saying what others are too afraid to put into words, let alone in 20-30 page decisions. In fact, I blogged on 2 such decision in the past: one on college contribution for families with multiple children and another on overseas travel. Easton v. Mercer is yet another decision that may be often cited by practitioners when similar issues arise. It will be interesting to see what Judge Jones has in store next.
Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or firstname.lastname@example.org.