The concept of “equitable fraud” refers to an unconscionable action between two parties who share a special relationship, such as a marriage. There is no absolute set of actions that fall under this category, but one defining factor of equitable fraud is that it does not require pre-knowledge or intent. It is rather based on the idea that an arrangement is unconscionable based on circumstances that are unfair to one of the involved parties. In addition, the unfairness of the situation must be attributed to the behaviors and/or actions of the other party.
At this point, you may be thinking, “But what does this have to do with an annulment?” That's actually a good question, considering that there are very limited grounds under which an annulment can be granted. This is important, since an annulment is an invalidation of a marriage, as opposed to a divorce, or dissolution of marriage. When a marriage is annulled, there are no marital properties to divide, and neither party can request financial support or receive any future benefits they may have been entitled to as a “former spouse”. Because they are so extreme in nature, annulments are only approved for a limited set of circumstances, such as bigamy, the parties being too closely related, or one of the parties being underage at the time of the marriage.
Fraud is also a qualifying circumstance, but it's not always easy to determine whether an act of fraud has occurred, especially when it does not appear that the offending party intended to commit fraud. The challenge of determining equitable fraud can be seen in cases like Easton v. Mercer, in which the husband filed for an annulment after 4 years of marriage. What's significant here is that the wife never lived with the husband, stating that she didn't want to move in with him until she had a chance to break the news to her parents. When she did finally told her parents, they refused to give their blessing, and continually pressured their daughter to end the marriage. The husband fought for the marriage for several years, but finally gave up since she would not commit to moving in with him. His grounds for annulment was fraud, which the wife committed by “bowing to parental pressure and abandoning both him and her marital vows.”
The trial judge agreed with the husband that the wife had, in essence, committed fraud, since “evidence in this case reflects... that deep down, defendant never truly had a genuine commitment to a marital relationship with the plaintiff in the first place.” The judge also based his decision on the fact that the parties had never lived together, nor had they undertaken any of the privileges and duties associated with marriage. As you can see, annulments may be black and white, but the qualifying reasons for annulment are not so cut and dry. For more information on NJ's annulment laws, please speak to the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.