When is a spouse in Maryland entitled to an annulment of his or her marriage?

by | Feb 7, 2024 | Firm News | 0 comments

Clients often inquire whether they are eligible for an annulment in Maryland.  A court in Maryland can annul a marriage in two circumstances: (1) when the spouses were never eligible to become married, such as when one or both parties were under the minimum age to wed, one party is already married, or the parties are closely related; or (2) when a party was induced to wed as a result of the other party’s fraudulent misrepresentations or concealment.

This article will discuss the extreme difficulty of obtaining an annulment based upon a fraudulent misrepresentation or concealment, which induced a person to enter into a marriage.                   

A.  ANNULMENT IS DISFAVORED IN MARYLAND

In Maryland, it is well-established that annulment of marriages is a disfavored equitable remedy: “The law does not favor annulments of marriages, and it has long been a settled judicial policy to annul marriages only under circumstances and for causes clearly warranting such relief.  It has been reasoned that more serious consequences, of a social and pecuniary nature, may result from a decree of annulment than from a decree of divorce, and that the vigilance with which the law guards the marital status should accordingly be intensified when an attack is made against its validity from the very beginning”.   Hall v. Hall, 32 Md.App. 363, 381-2 (1976) (internal quotations marks omitted).  This rationale for disfavoring annulments has become more salient in the last half century as the grounds for divorce have been liberalized to allow divorces on various no-fault grounds.   

B.   FRAUDULENT MISREPRESENTATIONS OR CONCEALMENT AS A GROUNDS FOR ANNULMENT

In order for a fraudulent misrepresentation or concealment to be grounds for divorce, it must of “such a character as to go to its very essence and affect the free consent thereto of the injured party”.  Brown v. Scott, 140 Md. 258 (1922).  This means that when the misrepresentation that induced marriage relates to “rank, fame, fortune, habits temperament or the like, they do not go to the essence of the [marriage] contract”.  Id.  But “where the fraud relates to essential matters necessarily affecting the health or well-being of the parties themselves or any offspring from the marriage, it is sufficient”.  Id.                                                         

For example, if one person induces another into marriage based upon a series of false misrepresentations about his/her fame, income and/or wealth, this will not be grounds for an annulment.   However, if one person misrepresents that he or she was honorably discharged from the military service when in fact the person was dishonorably discharged after having been court marshaled for committing a violent criminal offense, there will be grounds for annulment.                                             

The reasonable person standard is applied to determine whether the misrepresentations or fraudulent concealment would have induced a person of ordinary prudence to have entered the marriage: “[W]here the true facts are such that no person of ordinary prudence would have made the contract with knowledge of them, induces such person to enter into a marriage contract, that contract may be avoided upon the application of the injured person, provided the application is made promptly upon the discovery of the fraud”.  Brown v. Scott, 140 Md. 258 (1922) (emphases added); Holland v. Holland, 224 Md. 449, 452-3 (1961). 

C.  A PARTY IS ELIGIBLE FOR ANNULMENT ONLY IF  THE COUPLE HAS NOT COHABITED AFTER  THEIR MARRIAGE AND THE INJURED PARTY IMMEDIATELY SOUGHT AN ANNULMENT UPON DISCOVERING THE FRAUDULENT MISREPRESENTATION OR CONCEALMENT

Even if there is a fraudulent misrepresentation or concealment of the character that goes to the very essence of a marriage contract, the injured party will not be eligible for an annulment, unless there has been no cohabitation and the person immediately filed for annulment upon discovering the fraudulent misrepresentation.               

Maryland courts “derive their authority to grant an annulment from the general jurisdiction of equity courts” and Family Law Art. § 1-201(a)(3).   Morris v. Goodwin, 230 Md.App. 395, 403 (2016) (quoting Ledvinka v. Ledvinka, 154 Md.App. 420, 434 (2003)).   To obtain equitable relief in Maryland, the law helps the vigilant, not those who sleep on their rights.  Hoffman v. Chapman, 182 Md. 208, 212-13 (1943) (“It is axiomatic that equity aids the vigilant, and will not grant relief to a litigant who has failed to exercise reasonable diligence”).                   

Maryland courts have uniformly applied this equitable maxim in annulment cases: “Being then a [marriage] contract, it seems to follow that where it has been procured by fraud or duress, it may be set aside by a court whose inherent jurisdiction gives it authority to annul any ordinary contract procured in the same way; provided the application be promptly made and before a consummation of the marriage by voluntary cohabitation”.  Morris v. Goodwin, 230 Md.App. 395, 403 (2016) (quoting Ridgely v. Ridgely, 79 Md. 298, 307 (1894)) (emphasis added); Picarella v. Picarella, 20 Md.App. 499, 506 (1974); Brown v. Scott, 140 Md. 258 (1922) (holding that an annulment of marriage requires “application [be] made promptly upon the discovery of the fraud”); Corder v. Corder, 141 Md. 114, 120 (1922) (annulling marriage where “the marriage was never consummated by cohabitation nor has there ever been at any time physical intercourse between the parties”).

D.   CONCLUSION

It is extremely difficult to obtain an annulment of a marriage in Maryland based upon a fraudulent misrepresentation or concealment.  However, it is now very easy to obtain a no-fault divorce in Maryland.  See my article at https://stewartsutton.com/maryland-eliminates-all-fault-grounds-for-divorce

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