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The fifth and final choice-of-law consideration used by the New Hampshire Supreme Court concerns its preference for applying the sounder rule of law. This consideration can play an important role in the ultimate choice made between the two competing laws. The court prefers to apply the better rule of law in conflicts cases just as is done in nonconflicts cases, when the choice is open to the court. If the law of some other state is outmoded, an unrepealed remnant of a bygone age, a drag on the coat-tails of civilization, the court will try to see its way clear to apply New Hampshire's own law instead. If it is New Hampshire's own law that is obsolete or senseless (and it could be) the court will try to apply the other state's law. The determination of which state's rule of law is the sounder rule requires an examination of the policies behind the conflicting rules and a decision as to which represents the sounder view of the law in light of the socio-economic facts of life at the time when the court speaks.
The parties met in 1981 and were married in 1986 in New York. Shortly after marrying, Kenneth moved into Paula’s New York apartment, where they resided for approximately four years. During the marriage, Paula stopped working outside the home, and maintained the parties' household by cooking, cleaning, organizing, and doing most of the grocery shopping. Kenneth worked outside the home and served as the sole financial provider. In 1990, the parties moved to Massachusetts, where they resided for approximately four years. In 1994, they moved to New Jersey and purchased a house, which served as their principal residence until 2007. In 2007, the parties sold their New Jersey house and purchased property in New Hampshire, where, by January 2008, they resided full-time.
In September 2013, Paula filed a petition for divorce. She asserted the fault grounds of “conduct to endanger” and adultery as grounds for the divorce. In February 2015, Kenneth filed a petition for annulment of the marriage on the ground that the marriage had been induced by fraud. During the litigation, he claimed that Paula had concealed that she had engaged in prostitution, used illegal drugs, and had certain medical procedures prior to their marriage and that had he known about this conduct he would not have married her. He also argued that New York law should apply to the petition for annulment because the parties were married under New York law and annulment of marriage concerns whether a marriage is void at its inception. Paula moved to dismiss the annulment petition, which the trial court denied. In May 2015, the court issued a final decree of divorce, ruling among others that New Hampshire law is the appropriate law to be applied in this case, and that under New Hampshire law, Paula's prostitution and use of illegal drugs prior to the marriage were insufficient to warrant annulment of the marriage.
Did the trial court err in applying New Hampshire law rather than New York law in the petition for annulment?
The determination of which state's rule of law is the sounder rule requires an examination of the policies behind the conflicting rules and a decision as to which represents “the sounder view of the law in light of the socio-economic facts of life at the time when the court speaks.” Under New York law, “annulments are decreed, not for any and every kind of fraud, but for fraud as to matters ‘vital’ to the marriage relationship only.” The fraud, however, need not go “to the essentials of marriage, that is, consortium and cohabitation.” Rather, “[a]ny fraud is adequate which is material, to that degree that, had it not been practiced, the party deceived would not have consented to the marriage, and is of such a nature as to deceive an ordinarily prudent person.” On the other hand, in New Hampshire, “annulment of a marriage for fraud is granted only with extreme caution.” “Annulment is not granted for any and every kind of fraud.” Fraud “by one of the parties as to character, morality, habits, wealth, or social position is generally held insufficient” to annul a marriage. “Consequently the standard for the annulment of a marriage is both strict and stringent.” “The fraudulent representations for which a marriage may be annulled must be of something essential to the marriage relation — of something making impossible the performance of the duties and obligations of that relation or rendering its assumption and continuance dangerous to health or life.” Thus, the New Hampshire court concludes that its stricter approach to the annulment of marriage upon the basis of fraud is the sounder rule of law for several reasons. First, annulment of a marriage, which vitiates the existence of the marriage, should not be an easy substitute for legal separation or divorce. Second, in Heath v. Heath, the Court ruled that so-called “material” fraud, that is fraud “important enough to be a substantial inducement of the marriage,” is insufficient to annul a marriage contract. The Court explained that such a “material” fraud rule is so broad and general in its comprehensive scope that it leaves much to the discretion of the trier and practically each case would be largely decided on its own special merits. The uncertainties and discrepancies that would thus arise would produce an unsatisfactory situation both from the public's and the individual's standpoint. Finally, the Court has long recognized that annulment of a marriage contract should be different from the voiding of an ordinary civil contract. “To give [marriage] contractual treatment generally because it has some contractual aspects is to overshadow the greater importance of its institutional character.” As recognized in Heath, marriage creates “a status containing more than an ordinary contractual relationship and not subject to the ordinary rules of contract law.”
Relying upon the Court’s decision in Ferren, Kenneth also asserts that New York law should apply because “the ‘occurrence’ giving rise to [his] annulment request took place in New York.” In Ferren, the plaintiff, a New Hampshire resident, brought an action against the defendant for personal injuries allegedly suffered as a result of his exposure to lead dust while employed at the defendant's Kansas plant. The Court therein ruled that New Hampshire law did not apply because, among other things, “no sufficient grounds exist[ed] on the facts of th[e] case for holding that New Hampshire law provide[d] the better rule. There was no occurrence within New Hampshire giving rise to the underlying suit to which the law of New Hampshire applie[d]. It thereby follow[ed] that this court ought not invalidate the [workers' compensation] statutory scheme of Kansas, whose substantial concern with the problem at hand [gave] it an overriding interest in the application of its law.” The present case, however, is distinguishable from Ferren. Here, the facts of the marital proceeding establish that the parties maintained the relationship relevant to the petition for annulment — their marriage — in New Hampshire. Thus, although the alleged fraud underlying the respondent's annulment petition occurred in New York, New Hampshire has a significant connection to, and interest in, the parties' marital status as a result of the parties' residence in the state for approximately eight years as of the time the annulment petition was brought.
Finally, Kenneth contends that New York law is the sounder rule of law because New York is not alone in recognizing that the failure to disclose past illegal activity is sufficient fraud to warrant annulment of marriage. The Court acknowledges that some jurisdictions find concealment of a criminal record sufficient to warrant an annulment of marriage. Nevertheless, for the reasons set forth above, New Hampshire law governing the annulment of marriage upon the basis of fraud is the sounder rule of law.