Last week I had the rare opportunity to literally give a 16-year-old client her life back. This girl had gotten married while in high school with the consent of her parents, who, after advising her of all the concerns and trepidations they had, decided to let her make her own mistakes and signed the consent forms. The boy, who was 18, married the girl at the courthouse, and neither of their parents attended the ceremony. After the marriage, the girl continued to live with her parents, and she and her new husband did not even consummate the marriage. They did not see one another again until one week after the marriage, when they briefly saw one another on the weekend. Two weeks into the marriage, the husband told my client that he had gotten back together with a former girlfriend and no longer wanted to be married.
A divorce would have been very simple in this situation because there were no marital assets or debts to divide and no children involved. The problem my client faced, however, was that a marriage and divorce would emancipate her from her parents, barring her forever from her parents’ insurance coverage and complicating her future college applications. An invalidity of marriage action (annulment) would legally erase the marriage, though, which would un-emancipate her and allow her to continue on with her life as though she had never gotten married.
In Colorado, courts can only grant a declaration of invalidity in limited circumstances, however. Those circumstances include when a party lacks capacity to consent to the marriage, lacks physical capacity to consummate the marriage, is under the legal age and marries without parental consent, enters into the marriage in reliance upon fraud by the other party, enters into the marriage under duress, or enters into the marriage as a jest or dare. Here, she had her parents’ legal consent, and there was probably no way that I could get either party to testify truthfully to a lack of physical capacity to consummate the marriage.
Fortunately, we drew a very sympathetic judge, and the other party did not oppose my client seeking a declaration of invalidity. After some creative legal argument and brief testimony by the parties and my client’s mother, the court concluded that my client entered into the marriage based on fraudulent acts or representations by the husband. I argued, and the court agreed, that the husband’s marriage proposal contained certain representations, among which were an intent to live with my client as husband and wife, an intent to care for my client (who was 16 years old and had never had any sort of employment), and an intent to be faithful to my client. Nevertheless, he never made any arrangements for my client to live with him, they never consummated the relationship, and he started dating a different girl shortly after the marriage was solemnized. Those facts allowed the court to conclude that the husband did not intend to carry through on his representations, that my client nevertheless relied upon his representations, and that the representations went to the heart of the marriage. At the end of our initial status conference, the court granted the declaration of invalidity on the basis of fraud.
This decision literally gave my client her childhood back by un-emancipating her. Sometimes, a case like this helps remind me why I practice in this area. Seeing the legal system work to fix a problem and improve someone’s future helps balance out some of the many, many headaches associated with practicing family law.