Judge Says Get Married or Go to Jail: Annulment for Marrying Under Duress

It seems like one of those kooky premises only found in romantic comedies. Unfortunately for one Texas couple, the threat was all too real. A judge in Smith County ordered a 19-year-old man to marry his girlfriend after he got into a physical altercation with her ex-boyfriend. Refusal or failure to do so carried a penalty of 15 days in jail. While the judge may have been well intentioned, his actions were illegal, and couples in this and similar situations can usually obtain a drama-free annulment based on duress. Here's more information about this option.

Annulling a Forced Marriage

While a divorce aims to separate a married couple and divide assets and parenting responsibilities, an annulment basically states the marriage was invalid from the beginning and aims to put the couple in the same position they were in prior to getting hitched. This typically means each person walks away with the assets and debts they entered the marriage with and no obligation to legally support the other person through alimony.

A marriage is typically only eligible for annulment in Texas under certain circumstances, and duress is one of them. At its heart, marriage is a contract between two people, and each person must willingly enter the contract of his or her own volition for it to be valid. Coercing, threatening, or taking other actions that remove a person's ability to act of his or her own free will essentially nullify the validity of the marriage contract. Thus, a person who is forced to marry someone else under threat of being thrown in jail would qualify for an annulment.

However, Texas won't grant annulment if the couple continues living together after the threat or duress is not longer relevant. So a couple who continues to stay married and live with each even after the criminal court case resolves would not be eligible for annulment. It's likely because a person's continued participation in the marriage after the threat is gone may be seen as consenting to the relationship.

Proving the Case in Court

The court will consider several factors when evaluating whether or not a person married under duress:

  • Whether the person's life, limb or liberty was threatened
  • The emotional state of the individual at the time of the marriage
  • Whether the marriage was consummated
  • How vulnerable the coerced individual is or was
  • The length of time between the coercive event and the marriage
  • The length of time between the marriage and the filing of annulment

Duress isn't always easy to prove, especially when the threat is social or psychological in nature. For instance, a family threatens to disown a person for not getting married may not be classified as duress if the person doesn't suffer any negative effects from the threat (e.g. lose financial support).

If you find yourself in a situation where you were forced to marry and you need help extricating yourself, connect with a divorce attorney for assistance.