Washington Annulment and Fraud Involving the Essentials of Marriage

Washington public policy favors a presumption that a marriage is valid.  Case law has held that a party seeking a Washington annulment must show the marriage is invalid by “clear, satisfactory, and convincing evidence.” A marriage is invalid if one party was induced to enter into it by “fraud involving the essentials of marriage” and the parties have not voluntarily cohabitated after the fraud was discovered.  RCW 26.09.040.

A man recently challenged a denial of his petition to invalidate his marriage, alleging the wife had misrepresented her prior relationship with another man.  The parties’ mothers were long-time friends.  The husband went to Vietnam with his mother in 2015 and met the wife. He visited her again in 2016.  He asked her if she had ever had any prior relationships and she said she had not.  They started talking about marriage later that year.  The husband applied for a K-1 visa in 2017.

When the wife got to the U.S. in August 2017, she asked the husband to get a marriage license the next day.  The couple married as soon as the 3-day waiting period passed.  They slept in separate bedrooms that night. According to the appeals court’s opinion, the parties were only sexually intimate once, later that month.

In early September, the husband searched the wife’s social media posts and found several photographs of her with another man between February 2016 and the day she left Vietnam. Her posts did not indicate she was coming to the U.S. to get married, but instead suggested that she was coming to the U.S. to study. The husband moved out.

The husband petitioned to invalidate the marriage and the wife petitioned for divorce. The husband told the court he would not have married the wife if he had known she had a boyfriend. He said she blocked him on social media so he would not find out about her relationship with the other man.  He felt that was effectively a lie. He said he felt like he had been used.

The wife said the husband had not inquired into her relationship status in 2015 or 2016.  She wanted to get married immediately after she got to the U.S. because the husband only had two weeks off work and her mother’s visa was only for a month. She thought they would have a more formal wedding later.  She testified she was not comfortable sharing a room with the husband while her mother was sleeping in the living room nearby.  She testified she became unhappy when she realized the husband had married her for money.

The wife testified she had ended the relationship with the other man before she met the husband.  On cross-examination, however, she testified that she did not end the relationship until she agreed to marry the husband.  She denied continuing the relationship with the other man until she left Vietnam.

The trial court found the husband credible and found the wife had been “dishonest by omission” regarding her relationship with the other man.  The trial court also found the husband relied on that misrepresentation and would not have married her if he knew the truth.  The trial court also found, however, that the misrepresentation did not constitute fraud involving the essentials of marriage. The court granted the wife’s petition for divorce and denied the husband’s petition to invalidate the marriage.

The husband appealed, arguing the trial court erred in denying his petition.

The appeals court noted that the term “essentials of marriage” is not defined and considered the dictionary definition of the word “essential.” The appeals court found only one published Washington case addressing the issue, Harding v. Harding. In that case, the Washington Supreme Court found that a party’s decision prior to the marriage not to engage in sexual intercourse with the other party after the marriage, failure to disclose that decision, and ultimate follow-through with that decision constituted a fraud relating to the essentials of the marriage.  The appeals court noted that in other jurisdictions the intent to have children and religious convictions have both found to be essentials of the marriage.

The appeals court found, however, that no state has held “that misrepresentations about chastity involve the essentials of the marriage.” The appeals court pointed to several jurisdictions that had expressly concluded otherwise.  The appeals court agreed with those other jurisdictions and held that misrepresentations of chastity do not constitute fraud involving the essentials of marriage. Therefore, the wife’s misrepresentations regarding her relationship with the other man did not support an annulment under RCW 26.09.040(4)(b)(i). The appeals court thus affirmed the divorce decree.

Invalidating a marriage can be very difficult.  In Harding, the Washington Supreme Court stated annulments should be granted based on fraud only in “extreme cases.” If you are considering ending your marriage, a skilled Washington family law attorney can advise you on whether an annulment may be an option in your case.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.


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