New Jersey Guidelines for Annulment
By Beverly Bird
People often think of an annulment as a quick, easy way to end a marriage. In New Jersey, the opposite is true. A divorce ends an existing marriage, whereas an annulment is a court order stating the marriage never existed. This is a significant ruling and New Jersey courts require substantial cause before they'll issue such an order. However, the difficulty in presenting such a case might be worth it to you due to religious or personal reasons, such as you don't want the label of "divorcee" because of a marital issue that was no fault of your own.
An annulment is easier than a divorce in New Jersey in only one respect: there's no residency requirement for this type of legal action. You need only be a resident of the state at the time you file your complaint for annulment. In contrast, divorce requires that either you or your spouse reside in New Jersey for an entire year before you can file.
New Jersey offers multiple grounds for both divorce and annulment, with one big difference. You can get a no-fault divorce based on irreconcilable differences – the marriage doesn't work anymore and that's not likely to change. This option isn't available for an annulment. You must establish one of several statutory grounds in your complaint. These include duress, fraud, bigamy, mental incapacity, impotence or inability to have children, incest, or that one or both spouses were under legal age to marry – 18 in New Jersey.
Burden of Proof
It's not sufficient to simply tell the court that one of the accepted grounds for annulment exists and it applies to your marriage. As the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof; you must present the judge with sufficient documentation or testimony to establish that this is so. For example, if you claim duress, this means your spouse threatened you to make you consent to the marriage; typically, you must provide proof of threats of physical violence. If you charge that your spouse committed fraud, such as he told you something that convinced you to marry him and you later found out it wasn't true, an annulment can hinge on the nature of the lie. New Jersey courts have held that lying about financial circumstances isn't grounds, whereas if your spouse professes to share your religious beliefs and does not, this is a legally acceptable reason for annulment. The misrepresentation or flaw in your marriage must be such that it affects the legitimacy of the marital relationship.
Although it's virtually impossible for a spouse to contest irreconcilable differences grounds for divorce in New Jersey, a defendant spouse has the right to raise certain defenses to annulment grounds. In addition to trying to disprove your grounds, your spouse might attempt to prove that you continued living together after you learned of the problem with your marriage – in this case, you've "confirmed" your marriage and the court won't grant an annulment. New Jersey courts also uphold the "doctrine of unclean hands." This means that if you're also guilty of some fault, the court won't grant you an annulment. This might be the case if you allege fraud, but you lied about something fundamental to the marriage as well. If the court denies your annulment, this doesn't mean you have to remain married. You can file for divorce instead.
New Jersey statutes do not permit courts to divide marital property in an annulment action. Therefore, if your marriage lasted long enough that you acquired marital property, you'll have to take this issue up in civil court, separate and apart from your annulment lawsuit. Family court can decide issues of custody and child support, however, as well as address alimony issues under some circumstances.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.