Defenses Available in an Annulment Proceeding
Annulment is a legal proceeding initiated to terminate an invalid marriage and to declare that no valid marriage ever took place because of a problem existing at the time of the wedding ceremony. The basic difference between a divorce and annulment is that divorce dissolves a valid marriage, and annulment proclaims that there never was a valid marriage. Annulments are rare compared to divorces, partly because of the wide availability of no-fault divorce.
The main grounds for obtaining annulments are fraud, physical incapacity, non-age, force or duress, mental incapacity, bigamy, and consanguinity.
Defenses in Annulment Proceedings
Under certain circumstances, the non-filing party may assert defenses that are not unique to annulment actions. As with any lawsuit, a defendant may raise the defenses of lack of jurisdiction, improper venue, inappropriate remedy, or lack of notice.
When an annulment action is initiated, the purpose of the action is to nullify a void marriage. With respect to voidable marriages, courts have not excluded the possibility of ratification. In general, a voidable marriage will not be annulled if the parties cohabit voluntarily after learning the facts that made the marriage voidable.
If the plaintiff fails to prove the proper ground for annulment, the defendant may seek to maintain the action in order to foreclose future annulment actions. Examples might be where the alleged fraud did not go to the essence of the marriage relation or where the person whose mental capacity was challenged in fact understood the nature of the marriage contract.
The doctrine of equitable estoppel is another defense in annulment proceedings. The thrust is not to validate a void divorce decree or an invalid marriage, but to prevent a spouse from disrupting family relations by allowing him or her to avoid his or her marital obligations. Most jurisdictions abide by the rule that a spouse who has obtained a divorce decree can be estopped from asserting its invalidity as ground for annulling a subsequent marriage.
The fact that a state's divorce law abolishes the defense of unclean hands as it pertains to divorce actions does not necessarily invalidate that defense as to annulments.
In a marriage that was obtained by duress, the spouses' voluntary cohabitation after the force or cause of fear is removed constitutes a defense to annulment.
Apart from common defenses, the defenses of equitable estoppel, ratification, and unclean hands may be raised in annulment actions.
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