August 19, 2008

California Annulment Erases a Marriage When Fraud Goes To The Heart of the Marital Relationship

In a surprising result, the California Court of Appeal has upheld a lower Court's decision to annul the marriage of a Southern California couple where Husband carried on a sexual relationship with Wife's sister prior to and after marriage. The Court held that Husband committed fraud by purposely deceiving Wife into believing he would be faithful to her, when in fact he did not intend to terminate his relationship with her sister.

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So what's the big deal about the Court granting an annulment instead of a divorce? Plenty. An annulment voids the marriage; it simply erases the marriage from existence as if it had never happened in the first place. On the other hand, divorce (or dissolution, as it's officially called) terminates a valid marriage. In other words, the marriage actually did exist, but has now ended.

Under California law, certain legal rights and obligations are triggered when two parties marry. The most common examples are community property rights and spousal support (formerly called alimony). Once a couple marries, all property acquired during the course of the marriage is presumed to be community property, meaning that each party has an undivided 1/2 interest in that property (there are exceptions, of course). Also, once a couple marries, each spouse has an obligation to provide support for the other, both during marriage as well as after divorce. Thus, a career working spouse may have the obligation to provide financial support to a stay-at-home spouse or parent for anywhere from a few months to an indefinite number of years after divorce.

However, in the case of an annulment, neither community property rights nor spousal support obligations ever arise, because there never was a valid marriage. Consequently, parties must then seek relief through the conventional civil courts based on, for example, real property or contract law.

Family Code §2210 permits the Court to annul a marriage when the consent of a spouse was obtained by fraud. Additionally, Family Code §720 specifies that the marriage contract includes obligations of "mutual respect, fidelity, and support." The Courts have previously defined the fraud necessary for annulment as deceit that goes to the very essence of the marital relation. In the above case, the appellate Court went so far as to hold that Husband's intent to carry on the sexual relationship with Wife's sister was a fraudulent and intentional breach of his contractual obligation of fidelity, and that Wife was therefore entitled to a Judgment of Annulment.

For more information about divorce, annulment or other California family law issues, please contact attorney Gary D. Sparks.

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