Fraud in Family Law Cases
By Kelly Mroz
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To show someone committed fraud in a family law case, you have to prove that the person made a false statement of fact that related to something important in the case. You also have to show that the person knew the statement was untrue and intended to deceive you, causing you harm. Fraud can play a pivotal role in family law cases. If you can prove fraud, you may be able to overturn a court order, such as a divorce decree, undo a contract, such as a prenuptial or settlement agreement, annul your marriage, or affect a paternity determination.
If you can prove fraud, you may be able to reopen or vacate your final decree of divorce. For this relief, states typically differentiate between extrinsic and intrinsic fraud. You are more likely to be able to get relief if the fraud is extrinsic. If the fraud is intrinsic, your state may not permit the decree to be vacated or reopened or might do so only in limited circumstances, such as where there is new evidence.
While the nuances of the definition vary by state, extrinsic fraud is generally defined as fraud that prevents a trial altogether or prevents you from getting the information you need to have a fair trial. An example of extrinsic fraud would be if your spouse told you the wrong date and time for the divorce hearing, so you failed to appear in court. Intrinsic fraud is when your spouse lies about a core issue in the divorce, like testifying that a bank account has $2,000 in it when it really contains $200,000. State laws provide a specific time period in which you can request relief based on fraud.
A prenuptial agreement is a contract between two people signed before they get married. The contract specifies what will happen financially if the parties die, separate or get divorced. Prenuptial agreements can only be overturned for limited reasons, one of which is fraud. States often have laws requiring that the parties disclose their assets to each other to have a valid agreement. The court may overturn specific terms of the agreement or the entire prenuptial contract, if assets were fraudulently misrepresented when it was signed.
An annulment ends a marriage with a declaration that the marriage never legally existed because it was flawed from the beginning. Fraud is one of the most common grounds for annulment. To justify an annulment, the fraud must affect the marriage at its most essential level. So, if your partner says he was just tested for sexually transmitted diseases and is disease-free, and then you get married and find out he never actually got tested and has a disease that could be transmitted to you, you might be able to get the marriage annulled. On the other hand, if your partner says he doesn't drink alcohol and you get married and find out he abuses alcohol, most courts do not consider the lie to be central enough to the marriage for an annulment.
Paternity fraud is a complex and evolving area of law. The laws vary widely by state as the legal system grapples with the impact of technological advances like inexpensive and readily available DNA testing. With these changes, there has been a general trend toward relieving men who assumed parental responsibilities of those duties if they later find out they were duped into believing they were biological fathers.
Kelly Mroz has more than 12 years of experience as an attorney in family, business and estate matters. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where she served as an associate editor for the "Journal of Law and Commerce." Mroz's work has also been published in the "Pennsylvania Family Law Quarterly."