Shotgun Wedding? The Challenges of Proving You Got Married Under Duress
Some time ago, women's basketball star Brittany Griner filed court paper to annul her 28-day marriage to long-time girlfriend Glory Johnson. Among several reasons for the request, Griner stated she had married Johnson while under duress. The courts recognize that sometimes people are pressured into getting married against their will and, thus, any such union will automatically be dissolved.
However, proving you married under duress isn't always as easy as you would think. Here's what you need to know about this problem.
Duress According to the Law
The legal system defines duress as any type of coercion or illegal threat made to a person to force him or her to act in a way contrary to the individual's will or nature. For instance, a robber compels a bank teller to give him money by pointing a gun at the person.
Since marriage requires the consent of all parties involved, anything that removes a person's ability to willingly agree to get married makes the union null and void. For instance, in the 1928 divorce case Lee vs. Lee litigated in Arkansas, the woman's father threatened her lover with a gun and told the man he had to marry his daughter. Even though the woman didn't know about the incident, the man was still granted a divorce because it was clear that had he refused the woman's father would have injured or killed him.
However, the coercion doesn't always have to involve threats of or actual violence. Blackmail, economic intimidation, and emotional or psychological pressure can also qualify if the result is the person feels compelled to agree to avoid suffering harm to his or herself. In Hirani vs. Hirani, a 1982 case litigated in California, a woman testified that her parents threatened to evict her from their home if she did not go through with the marriage. Although there was no physical threat to her person, the appeals court eventually found the parent's threat to be enough to remove the woman's ability to consent in light of the reality of her situation.
Proving the Case in Court
When considering whether the claim of marrying under duress is valid, the court will look a number of factors such as:
- Whether there was a threat to the person's life, limbs, or liberty
- The person's emotional state when the ceremony took place
- Whether the parties consummated the marriage
- The length of time between when the coercion occurred and when the parties got married
- Where the parties reside
- How vulnerable the coerced person is or was
- How long before the victim filed for annulment or divorce
Unfortunately, duress isn't always easy to prove. If the threat happened in private and there are no witnesses or paper trail, you may not be able to show it actually occurred.
Cases where the coercion was emotional, psychological, or social in nature are particularly challenging to win. What a person considers to be coercive may not come across as such in a courtroom. For instance, a person may experience intense pressure from family members to marry a certain person, but the court may not consider that to be duress if the only consequence of refusal is those family members decide never have social contact with the individual again.
Another issue is the court may not fully factor in aspects of a person's culture or religion that can greatly impact a person's ability to consent. For instance, in some religions, a person may be expelled from the religion if the individual doesn't submit to the demands of his or her family, and that expulsion could result in real consequences for the person's life and welfare. Unfortunately, that concept may not translate well in court, if at all.
If you married your spouse under duress and you want to leave the relationship, it's best to go to websites to contact a divorce attorney for assistance with putting together a case that helps you obtain the outcome you want.