“First Comes the LAW, then Comes Marriage”

Family Law, Mark Schondorf

Mark Schondorf, Divorce Attorney

In this world of reality television, we see people sharing the details of their personal lives on a regular basis, and often these shows center around love and relationships. Who hasn’t heard of The Bachelor, or The Bachelorette? One popular reality television show, Married at First Sight, has been going strong for eleven seasons. As the title implies, the series features three to five couples, paired up by a team of relationship experts, who agree to marry each other at first sight. The bride and groom have no prior knowledge of the person they will legally marry until the moment they meet at the ceremony. Surrounded by family and friends, they exchange vows and rings and enter into an 8-week experiment ending in a decision to stay married or get divorced.

Despite the fact some couples are still together, more often than not, even those that chose to stay married, ultimately end up divorcing sometime later (per the show’s Wikipedia page). While this attorney cannot admit to watching, the premise of the show sparks questions regarding the legal ramifications of such an agreement;  Was this a legally binding marriage? Can they get an annulment? What about a prenup? 

Was this a legally binding marriage? 

Yes. In Illinois, two people can marry if they are over 18 years of age, are not already legally married, are not closely related, and are legally competent to enter into a civil contract. The law is generally similar all across the United States. One would assume that the producers would ensure that the participants are legally competent, i.e., not drunk or under some legal disability. So as long as they meet those requirements, they are indeed “legally married”.

Can they get an annulment? 

In Illinois, there are four reasons to annul a marriage: 1) one spouse could not legally consent because of a mental disability, fraud, duress, force, or was under the influence of alcohol or drugs; 2) One spouse cannot have sexual intercourse and the other spouse must not have known this at the time of marriage; 3) one spouse was under the age of 18 and did not have consent from a parent, guardian or court; 4) the marriage was illegal because one party was still married to someone else or closely related. It’s also important to note that annulments must generally be sought within 90 days of the marriage.

One assumes the couples on the show are not being coerced into participating (the amount of paperwork to prove the opposite would support this), nor were not drunk at the time of the ceremony, making it difficult to obtain an annulment on such grounds. An annulment on the basis that a spouse “cannot have sexual intercourse” is an interesting one. Usually, once a married couple consummates the marriage through sex, an annulment is generally unavailable. Arizona allows an annulment on the basis of “refusal to have intercourse”. It’s plausible that the Illinois law is looking out for accidentally marrying someone with an undisclosed sexual orientation. 

This condition does not seem to apply on the show. First, all the couples are sent on a honeymoon where sex, while not ubiquitous, is also not unexpected. Once they return, they share an apartment for 2 months. Currently, three couples have made it through the show without being physically intimate. Therefore, generally speaking, if they choose to separate the couples must divorce, rather than annul. 

What about a prenup?

The show actually has the parties sign a short bare-bones premarital agreement that basically says they walk with what they come in with. However, a producer stated that “Once they are into the marriage, everything is completely up to them.” Without actually examining the premarital agreement, it is hard to decipher its limitations. Under the Illinois Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, the parties can pretty much control their finances. As mentioned previously, the couples must decide at the end of the season if they want to remain married or divorce. A divorce at the end of the season would be relatively simple and possibly finalized in just a few weeks. Since the couples live together in an apartment paid for by the show, they do not really have an opportunity to blend their finances or establish a lifestyle. A divorce at this stage would be fairly low stakes. 

The fact that they “everything is completely up to them” once “they are into the marriage” would indicate some sort of time limit on the effectiveness of the prenup. Perhaps the prenup is only effective if they divorce at the end of the program? If they choose to venture forward in life together beyond the show (several participants are still married with children), and have a traditional marriage, a “bare-bones” prenup probably does not take into account the wide range of issues (commingling of assets, debt, lifestyle) that come into play in a traditional divorce.