How Real is Your Love? Divorce, Annulment and Reality TV

Hi there,Ron Barriere Massachusetts Divorce Lawyer Burns & Levinson

I have the pleasure of working with a very skilled and funny colleague, Ron Barriere, who for reasons unknown to me follows too much reality TV and has written a very informative post on the divorce of Ms. Kim Kardashian.



My house is the battleground in the ongoing war for reality television supremacy.  I have backed the traditional powerhouse of sport; my wife is a staunch supporter of the upstart soap opera-style antics of trashy housewives and amorous bachelors and bachelorettes.  What a godsend, then, has been the “Humpdashian” saga and its mash-up of pro basketball, reality television’s first family, and surprisingly complex family law issues.  (I will leave the “what is real and what is reality TV?” debate to media critics and sociology professors.)  The latest news from the front raises interesting questions about the distinctions between divorce and alimony, and the legal (and, sometimes, religious) significance of fault in the dissolution of a marriage.

I cannot pretend to know the entire back-and-forth of this saga, nor can I comment upon the accuracy – or inaccuracy – of the reportage to date.  Therefore, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to discuss the current prevailing story in the form of a classic law school hypothetical:

Facts:  Handsome and wealthy pro Basketball Player falls in love with and marries very attractive and ridiculously wealthy Reality TV Star.  Their courtship, marriage, and ultimately, their separation are captured on television and watched by millions.  Reality TV Star alleges they’ve fallen out of love; Basketball Player alleges Reality TV Star never loved him in the first place and was only seeking higher ratings and self-promotion with their relationship.  Reality TV Star soon starts a new relationship with Rap Star, with whom she becomes pregnant.  She is still married to Basketball Player.  For the purposes of this post, I will not address issues related to the unborn child’s legal parentage – that is another subject for another day.
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Problem:  (1) While they agree their marriage and relationship are over, they disagree as to how to dissolve the marriage, mostly because (2) they disagree as to whyit ended.

The choices for dissolution of their marriage are divorce and annulment.  The divorce process is a frequent subject of this blog, but the annulment process is a much rarer occurrence.  The scarcity of annulment actions is easily explained:  while a divorce ends a marriage, an annulment is a civil adjudication that the marriage never happened.  This brings us to Problem 2:  reports are that Reality Star wants a divorce, while Basketball Player is holding out for an annulment.

While a complainant seeking divorce in Massachusetts can elect to proceed by alleging and proving fault or by the common no-fault grounds of “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage,” a complainant seeking annulment must state that s/he “doubts the validity of the marriage,” the most common reason giving rise to the doubt being fraudulent inducement.  Our Basketball Player’s allegation is best articulated by the Massachusetts Complaint for Annulment:

Plaintiff entered into the marriage in good faith, but at the time of the marriage, plaintiff was induced to enter into the marriage through fraud practiced upon the plaintiff by the defendant; and that upon the discovery of the true facts said plaintiff ceased the marital relationship.

While it is tempting to suggest Basketball Player’s motivations are purely financial (as many news sources – both reputable and less so – have done in the Kardashian-Humphries case) given the sheer size of the marital estate subject to division, there are other serious factors of consequence at stake.  For example, a Catholic annulment requires a similar finding of fundamental misrepresentation in order to obtain a tribunal-sanctioned annulment.  Thus, a civil acknowledgment of fraud and/or a civil annulment would be persuasive evidence in a petition for Catholic annulment.  Even if religious principles aren’t at play in our hypothetical, there is no discounting the very real possibility of a less arcane and less complex reason for one party insisting on annulment.  What if only one heart was broken in this Reality Show marriage, or, more to the point, what if only one heart was ever at risk in the first place?