Divorce attorney Carmela M. Miraglia reviews an appellate decision finding that a court cannot award damages for a "fraudulent marriage".
Secret families. False claims about personal wealth. Undisclosed former wives and children. Made up jobs, college degrees, and allegedly heroic deeds. Every divorce lawyer has a story about spouses who lied throughout their engagement, only for the new spouse to discover the lies after the vows were exchanged.
What happens when a party feels he or she was duped into a marriage by a spouse who lied about his or her past? Can a spouse sue for damages for “fraudulent inducement” if he or she feels tricked into getting married? A recent Appeals Court case, Shea v. Cameron (2018), reminded Massachusetts spouses that courts are generally barred from awarding damages for “fraudulent marriage” by an old law called the Massachusetts Heart Balm Act.
Is Marriage a Contract Between Spouses? Depends Who You Ask
We commonly hear marriage referred to as a “contract”. Indeed, in almost half of the states, a specific cause of actions exists for breach of promise to marry. An action for breach of promise to marry can be described as follows:
The theory of this cause of action is that the party who backed out has breached a contract. The three basic and traditional elements of a contract are offer, acceptance, and consideration. The mutual promise to marry is the consideration for this contract. … [T]he victim can obtain compensatory damages to cover out-of-pocket losses such as funds spent to prepare for the wedding. If the defendant’s conduct has been particularly offensive, for instance, (intentionally causing the victim to be humiliated), punitive damages are possible.
The remaining states – including Massachusetts – prohibit claims for breach of promise to marry through laws known as Heart Balm Acts. These laws prevent an engaged party from suing the other if the second would-be spouse breaks off the engagement. The history behind Heart Balm Acts is interesting. At the time these laws were being passed, many marriages were effectively arranged, often by the spouse’s families. Future spouses often did not know one another very well, and if one spouse broke off an engagement, the other spouse (particularly the woman) often found her reputation badly damaged. In 1950, the median age for a woman to become married was 20 years old. If a woman’s fiancé broke off their engagement, her future marriage prospects could be harmed.
The Heart Balm Acts that swept American states in the 1940’s and 1950’s can be read as a repudiation of the notion of marriage as a contract. These laws held that the only real damages suffered by a jilted fiancé are a broken heart, and that it was not the court’s place to award monetary damages for the emotional impact of a breakup.
From Marriage to Annulment to Claims of Marriage Fraud
The Massachusetts Heart Balm Act recently made a rare appearance in a Massachusetts appellate court case, Shea v. Cameron (2018), decided in February of 2018. According to the Appeals Court’s summary of the trial court record, the parties moved in together shortly after they started dating and were married within two years. At the time of the marriage, the wife owned the house in which the parties lived. Soon after the marriage, she added the Husband’s name to the deed for her house.
A year into the marriage, the wife allegedly discovered that the husband was having an affair and filed for divorce. For reasons that not altogether clear, the wife chose to withdraw her Complaint for Divorce and file a Complaint for Annulment instead, alleging fraud and seeking to annul the marriage. The appellate record suggests that during a deposition, the husband was “unable to love [the wife] very early in the marriage,” and that never thought the wife was “his one true love.” The parties were able to negotiate a joint stipulation of annulment which was filed with the Court and ended the marriage.
One can only speculate why the wife chose to abandon the divorce action for the combination of annulment and action for fraud. On its face, the strategy made some sense: by annulling the marriage, the wife was no longer restricted to the divorce statute, which doesn’t provide for monetary “damages”, per se. And the law certainly provides remedies for a party who was fraudulently induced into transferring ownership of her property by another’s misrepresentations. Given that the husband had entered a stipulation for annulment in which he arguably admitted that the marriage had been the product of fraud, one sees the logic in the wife’s approach.
But there was a problem with the wife’s argument: the rarely invoked Massachusetts Heart Balm Act, which provides in full:
Breach of contract to marry shall not constitute an injury or wrong recognized by law, and no action, suit or proceeding shall be maintained therefor.
The wife’s complaint alleged that the husband acted fraudulently and deceitfully in order to marry her, causing her emotional distress during the marriage and unjustly enriching himself at her expense. After a trial in the Superior Court, the judge held that the husband made misrepresentations about his love and commitment to the wife, but concluded as a matter of law that the Heart Balm Act barred the court from ordering damages arising out of a breach of a marital promise.
The Appeals Court agreed, holding:
Unlike in a traditional heart balm action, [wife] does not assert that [husband] wronged her by not marrying her; rather, she asserts that [husband] wronged her in fraudulently inducing her to marry him. This argument rests on the principle that [husband’s] express and implied promises of love were knowingly false, and that but for these professions, she would not have entered into the romantic relationship which resulted in the alleged harm suffered. Without the contract of marriage that followed the alleged false statements, [wife’s] claims of fraud would have no basis. We conclude that [wife’s] artful pleadings fail to hide the fact that these claims, based on events that occurred prior to the marriage, are precluded under [the Massachusetts Heart Balm Statute], as a matter of law.
The Broad Reach of the Heart Balm Act: Barring All Breach of Marriage Contract Claims
Massachusetts is one of the majority of states that has a heart balm statute. M.G.L.c. 207, §47A, prohibits marriage contracts from being the basis of a lawsuit, and M.G.L. c. 207, §47B, abolishes personal injury lawsuits for alienation of affection and criminal conversion that commonly resulted from the breach of a marriage contract.
The purpose of these prohibitions was to give individuals the freedom to choose who they want to marry, without the pressure of facing a possible lawsuit if he or she changes his or her mind. The statutes also act as a restraint on the powers of the court and a protection of its valuable time and resources, preventing the legal system from being drawn into the complex, and often emotional, conflicts of the parties involved. Typically, the parties barred from filing a lawsuit by the Massachusetts’ heart balm statute are distraught fiancés who have been jilted and left at the altar. However, the language of the statute, and its subsequent interpretations by the court, has made it clear that the Massachusetts’ heart balm statute blocks all lawsuits dealing with “the contract of marriage”.
For example, in the 1945 case of Thibault v. Lalumiere (1945), the Massachusetts Supreme Court said that the state’s heart balm statute “abolished any right of action, whatever its form, that was based upon such a breach,” including “actions in tort for fraud.” This essentially barred any lawsuit stemming from the decision to marry, or not marry, and not just the personal injury suits outlined in M.G.L.c. 207, §47B.
A Complaint for Divorce Remains the Best Remedy for Marital Misbehavior
Due to the Heart Balm Act’s broad prohibition against suits arising out of alleged violation of a marriage contract, the wife’s complaint for fraud in Shea v. Cameron was destined to fail in the Massachusetts Court of Appeals. As the court opined, “not all human actions in the context of the dissolution of a marriage have an avenue for legal recourse, no matter how much anger, sorrow, or anxiety they cause.” Notably, the Appeals Court ended its opinion with the following statement:
The process of divorce provides an avenue for alimony and the equitable distribution of property. By voluntarily withdrawing her complaint for divorce and entering into a stipulation and judgment of annulment, [the wife] chose to forgo that process and her claims could not survive in Superior Court.
Because she dissolved the marriage through annulment, the wife in Shea v. Cameron was unable to utilize the considerable tools that are available for addressing a spouse’s fraudulent behavior through a traditional complaint for divorce. We have frequently covered the subject of fraudulent behavior by a spouse, with blogs ranging from fraudulent real estate conveyances by a spouse, to how courts address hidden or undiscovered assets, to how judges punish dishonest parties in custody cases, and to how court’s deal with adultery and/or a party’s workplace misconduct.
The Massachusetts property division statute does not provide for damages against a fraudulent spouse. However, the statute provides probate and family court judges with broad latitude to assign property based on, among other factors, the “conduct of the parties” and “the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value” of the marital property. In a short-term marriage, such as that presented in Shea v. Cameron, a judge in a divorce action has broad discretion to assign all or most of the assets that each party brought into the marriage to that party.
Of course, there are limits to the financial orders that a judge can enter in a divorce case in response to spouse’s bad behavior. The Court is not permitted to enter financial orders for the express purpose of punishing a party’s bad acts, nor can a divorce judge order compensation for emotional damages. If a party is able to demonstrate how one spouse’s bad acts resulted in clear economic harm for the other spouse, however, the Court has a variety of remedies at its disposal, ranging from a disproportionate division of marital assets to an award of legal fees and costs.
About the Author: Carmela M. Miraglia is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts. She is also a mediator for South Shore Divorce Mediation.