On appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman, J.
Argued September 22, 1997 --
The core question raised in this appeal is what legal effect a successful attack on the validity of an ancient foreign divorce or putative divorce should have on claims after remarriage for alimony and/or equitable distribution when the party procuring the putative foreign decree did not knowingly commit any wrongful conduct. The trial court held that (1) defendant was not estopped from attacking the validity of plaintiff's prior divorce, (2) defendant was entitled to a judgment annulling his marriage with plaintiff, and (3) plaintiff's claims for alimony and equitable distribution must be dismissed.
We hold that under the totality of the circumstances, defendant is estopped from denying the validity of his marriage to plaintiff. Plaintiff is entitled to pursue her claims for alimony, equitable distribution, and marital torts.
Because the case was disposed of in the trial court by an order granting partial summary judgment in favor of defendant, our statement of the facts is based on our consideration of the competent evidential materials presented in the light most favorable to plaintiff who opposed defendant's motion for summary judgment. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 523-24 (1995).
Patricia (plaintiff) and Gilbert (defendant) Heuer were married in New Jersey in October 1984. It was the third marriage for each of them. In March 1995, plaintiff initiated these divorce proceedings in which the validity of plaintiff's first divorce became an issue.
Plaintiff and Kenneth McDougall were married on April 25, 1964 in Dover, New Jersey. They lived in Morris Plains, New Jersey until 1968 when they decided to seek a divorce. According to plaintiff, they decided to obtain a divorce in Alabama because they believed divorces to be lengthy, difficult, and costly in New Jersey and McDougall wanted to remarry quickly. In her deposition and supplemental interrogatories, plaintiff stated that an Alabama attorney sent forms that plaintiff and McDougall completed and had notarized at a Morristown bank. Plaintiff does not remember the name of the Alabama attorney, but she traveled to Alabama at the attorney's request. McDougall did not go with her. Plaintiff remained in Alabama for approximately thirty-six hours to fulfill the residency requirement she believed, based on the advice of counsel, was required to obtain a divorce in Alabama. During her stay, plaintiff went to court and testified before a Judge.
Plaintiff received a document called a "Divorce Decree" dated December 19, 1968. The document states that Patricia A. McDougall and Kenneth D. McDougall were divorced by the St. Clair County Alabama Circuit Court, and the decree was signed by Judge F.O. Whitten, Jr. McDougall signed a receipt acknowledging receipt of the judgment of divorce, and he subsequently remarried without knowledge that the Judge had issued a fraudulent decree.
On May 16, 1970, plaintiff married Robert Williams in Madison, New Jersey. On the marriage license, plaintiff indicated that she had been married and divorced once before and that Kenneth McDougall was the name of her former husband. McDougall is listed as plaintiff's surname by a prior marriage on the record of her marriage to Williams from the State Registrar of Vital Statistics. Plaintiff testified at her depositions that she was required to produce the divorce decree from her first marriage before the license for her second marriage could be issued. During her marriage to Williams, plaintiff gave birth to a daughter. In 1982, plaintiff and Williams obtained a Judgment of Divorce from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, of Morris County.
Plaintiff and defendant were married in 1984. Their application for a marriage license indicates that plaintiff was married once before and lists her former husband as Robert Williams. The parties differ regarding whether, at the time of their marriage, defendant knew about plaintiff's marriage to McDougall. The trial court, however, was obligated to view that dispute in the light most favorable to plaintiff when considering defendant's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff told defendant about her first marriage prior to dating him and she specifically remembers telling him that she went to Alabama to get her first divorce. Plaintiff also said that she and defendant discussed omitting the fact of her first marriage from the application because she was embarrassed about being twice divorced and her first marriage evoked painful memories. She stated that defendant did not have a problem with the omission. Defendant denies that these conversations took place. Plaintiff's mother also said that she spoke with defendant about plaintiff's first marriage before they were married. Defendant denies that conversation occurred as well.
Defendant stated that the first time he became aware of plaintiff's first marriage and divorce was when he met McDougall at plaintiff's uncle's funeral in 1987, three years after plaintiff and defendant were married. Defendant claims that plaintiff informed him at that time of her marriage to McDougall, but that he did not inquire into the details of the first divorce because plaintiff told him it brought back painful memories. He did not seek to annul his marriage to plaintiff at that time. For purposes of the summary judgment motion, the trial court concluded that defendant knew about plaintiff's first marriage when he and plaintiff were married.
In March 1995, plaintiff filed a complaint seeking a divorce, alimony, and equitable distribution. She also filed two amended complaints in which she seeks, among other things, damages for an alleged marital tort. Defendant filed an Answer and Counterclaim, seeking an annulment on the grounds that plaintiff's first divorce was invalid. Defendant moved for summary judgment in June 1996. Although the trial court found that, for purposes of the motion, defendant knew about the Alabama divorce prior to marrying plaintiff, it granted the motion and annulled the marriage. The court refused to apply estoppel because defendant did not participate in the Alabama divorce proceedings.
The Appellate Division denied plaintiff's motion for leave to appeal the trial court's order. We granted plaintiff's motion for leave to appeal, 148 N.J. 456 (1997), and now reverse.