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DEMEDIO v. DEMEDIO ET AL. (09/11/69)

decided: September 11, 1969.


Appeal from decree of Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, June T., 1957, No. 174, in case of Samuel W. DeMedio v. Rose M. DeMedio et al.


Anthony S. Minisi, with him Gerald J. McConomy, and Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen, for appellants.

Alan E. Boroff and Morris Gerber, with them David M. Jordan, and Wisler, Pearlstine, Talone & Gerber, for appellee.

Wright, P. J., Watkins, Montgomery, Jacobs, Hoffman, Spaulding, and Cercone, JJ. Opinion by Cercone, J. Jacobs and Hoffman, JJ., concur in the result.

Author: Cercone

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 257]

In June, 1957, Samuel W. DeMedio instituted an action against his wife Rose to annul their marriage of September 6, 1947, on the ground that the wife was mentally incompetent to enter into a marriage contract and, further, had falsely sworn as to her mental condition when applying for the marriage license in August, 1947. He also asked, in the alternative, for a decree of divorce a.v.m. on the grounds of fraud and indignities.

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 258]

The case was heard by a Master who held hearings covering a period from May 6, 1960 to December 9, 1965 and then filed a report with the Court recommending an annulment of the marriage based on his finding that the wife was mentally ill and incapable of entering into a valid marriage contract.

After argument upon the wife's exceptions, the court en banc referred the matter back to the Master to consider and pass upon the husband's right to a decree of divorce. The Master then filed a Supplemental Report recommending, in the alternative, a decree of divorce on the ground of fraud but not on the ground of indignities.

The court below adopted the Master's findings of fact, conclusions of law and his recommendation of a decree of annulment. It dismissed the wife's exceptions and entered a decree of annulment, finding it unnecessary to consider the husband's right to divorce.

The wife has appealed to this Court, contending that (1) plaintiff did not sustain his burden of proving her incompetent at the time of the marriage ceremony; (2) even if such burden had been met, his subsequent cohabitation with her for a period of seven years after the alleged invalid marriage constituted, under all the circumstances, a ratification of the marriage contract; (3) he had prior knowledge of her mental illness and is therefore estopped from denying the validity of the marriage on that basis; and (4) he had subsequent knowledge of her mental illness and continued to cohabit with her thereafter and is therefore estopped from contending the marriage is now invalid.

In considering this problem we must keep in mind the legal proposition that if a marriage is void because of the mental incompetency of one of the parties to enter into a valid marriage contract, knowledge on the part of the other party of such incompetency either before or after the marriage ceremony does not remove

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 259]

    the impediment to a valid marriage and the incompetent party does not have access to the legal defense of either estoppel or ratification. Our statute, Act of May 2, 1929, P.L. 1237, § 12, as amended, 23 P.S. § 12, provides:

"In all cases where a supposed or alleged marriage shall have been contracted, which is absolutely void . . . for any other lawful reason, the said supposed or alleged marriage, may, upon the application of either party, be declared null and void . . ."

It is to be noted that unlike the prior annulment statute of 1859 the application is not limited to the innocent and injured party.*fn1 Also, our annulment statute differs from those of other states which provide that an annulment cannot be obtained where the parties have voluntarily cohabited as husband and wife after knowledge of the fraud or insanity at the time of the marriage ceremony of one of the parties. For example, in Sweeney v. Sweeney (1922), 96 Vt. 196, 118 Atl. 882, the Supreme Court of Vermont construed Vermont's General Law 3555 which provided that a marriage shall not be annulled for fraud if, before action, "the parties voluntarily cohabited as husband and wife." In Wendel v. Wendel (1898) 30 App. Div. 447, 52 N.Y. Supp. 72, and McGill v. McGill (1917), 179 App. Div. 343, 166 N.Y. Supp. 397 (affirmed 226 N.Y. 673, 123 N.E. 877), the court had before it section 1750 of the New York Code of Civil Procedure providing that "a marriage shall not be annulled on the ground of fraud, if it appears that at any time before the commencement of the action the parties voluntarily cohabited as husband and wife with a full knowledge of the facts constituting the fraud." In Johnson v. Johnson, 104 N.W. 2d 8,

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 260]

    the Supreme Court of North Dakota had before it for consideration section 14-0401 of the North Dakota Code which provides that a marriage may be annulled "for any of the following causes existing at the time of the marriage: . . . (3) That either party was of unsound mind, unless such party, after coming to reason, freely cohabited with the other as husband or wife; . . ."

The Pennsylvania annulment statute contains no such qualifying element. We cannot supply this qualification by judicial interpretation. Our statute is clear: Either party can apply for the annulment of a void marriage; the application is not restricted to an innocent and injured spouse and therefore the annulment can be obtained regardless of plaintiff's knowledge either before or after the void marriage ceremony. Under our statute, neither estoppel, unclean hands, laches, or ratification can make valid a defective marriage ceremony.*fn2 Any complaint as to the reasonableness of this rule must be addressed to the legislature and not to the court.

We, therefore, turn our study to the question: Was the marriage contracted between the parties void by reason of the wife's mental incapacity to enter into a marriage contract? The lower court held the marriage void for that reason. It is this Court's duty to make an independent review and study of the matter and to exercise its independent judgment upon the whole record: Faivre v. Faivre, 182 Pa. Superior Ct. 365 (1956); Fitzpatrick v. Miller, 129 Pa. Superior Ct. 324.

A study of the voluminous record in this case and of the applicable law of Pennsylvania and of other jurisdictions

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 261]

    compels us to disagree with the findings and conclusions of the court below and to hold that the decree of annulment cannot be supported by the evidence and the law. The record reveals the following facts:

Plaintiff and defendant were married on September 6, 1947, in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Narberth, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, after a courtship of about seven months. Defendant was then approximately 27 years of age. She had resided in Boston and plaintiff, then 30 years old, had resided in Philadelphia. They met in February 1947, when defendant was visiting relatives in Philadelphia.

Defendant, since 1941, suffered acute psychotic episodes or exacerbations consisting of sudden and violent flares of temper, sudden unpredictable movements and impulsive behavior, which condition was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. These episodes of acute exacerbation or psychotic behavior interrupted her lucid intervals for indeterminate periods of time. In 1941 and 1944 defendant received treatment for this condition. In May, 1947, during the period of courtship with plaintiff, the defendant suffered an exacerbation as a result of which she went to a rest home in Boston and received seven shock treatments at a nearby hospital. Plaintiff admits that he knew she was so confined, and admits he called her by telephone and sent her flowers at the institution. He testified, however, at the trial that he made no inquiries as to the nature of her ailment. He testified, "Well, because a person happens to be in a hospital you wouldn't question what their condition was because you are going to marry them." In July, 1947, plaintiff and defendant spent a weekend in Ocean City, New Jersey, at the home of the defendant's relatives. While there, defendant suffered another psychotic episode requiring her uncle, Carmen Perri, to call a Dr. Miraglia, a

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 262]

    friend of both the uncle and of the plaintiff. Dr. Miraglia arranged for defendant to be given a psychiatric examination by Dr. Stephen J. Deichelmann at the Dufur Hospital in Ambler, Pennsylvania. On July 11, 1947, Dr. Deichelmann examined defendant and reported to Dr. Miraglia, inter alia, as follows:

". . . This 27 year old white female was examined in the presence of her uncle. She was tense and somewhat fearful and at times during the interview was definitely hostile to suggestions made. She was oriented for place and person, but showed gross memory defects for events of the past few years. By her own statement, she is moody and 'makes people around her unhappy'.

"In 1941 . . . she then [after a broken engagement] became very much depressed and had electric shock treatment. She does not know the number of treatments she received at that time. Since then she has not been really well for any sustained period of time. She has had paranoid feeling toward her mother and sister who, apparently, are hard working people and are attempting to keep a home together in the absence of the father, who has been separated from the family for many, many years. She has had many changes in jobs and seems unable to settle down and carry through any projects. About a month and a half ago (May 1947) she became so moody and depressed that shock therapy was again advisable and she was given seven treatments. She does not feel that this improved her very much, but it made her memory markedly defective. These treatments apparently were given on an ambulatory basis as she stayed in a rest home and was taken to another institution where the treatments were given. She states that at that time she was under the care of Dr. Raymond J. Duffy of 482 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts.

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 263]

"Patient has been engaged to another man,*fn3 recently, and they have set a date in September for their wedding. They apparently quarrel a great deal and the patient is doubtful as to whether or not they should go through with the marriage. She states very definitely that she wants to be married to this man and loves him, but because of her 'moody' state she cannot readily make up her mind about anything. She is, at present, visiting in the home of a relative in the vicinity of Conshohocken, where her fiance lives, and she states that she is not at all anxious to return to Boston. When it was suggested to her that she remain here at this hospital and receive further shock treatment, she became fearful and then asked if her uncle would leave the room for awhile, as she wished to discuss something she could not in his presence. When he left the room, she related some supposed facts regarding her sexual history as follows: . . .

"When she was reassured that this was not bad or anything for her to feel guilty about, and was more or less normal sex play of many engaged couples, she seemed more comfortable about it, however, she steadfastly maintained that she did not want to stay at the hospital, and when her uncle returned to the room, his pleas or any suggestions were to no avail.

"After we dismissed Miss DiNatale, we talked with her uncle alone. He then told me that this girl was definitely not well and had not been well at home. She had been impulsive and irritable to the point that her mother was afraid of her and had wished that the uncle would get her into a hospital while she was down here for further treatment. He said that she is subject to sudden flares of temper, sudden unpredictable movements, was emotionally labile and impulsive. He gave the onset of the mental state to the time when patient

[ 215 Pa. Super. Page 264]

    wanted to join the WAC and her mother refused to let her do so. She has been paranoid toward her mother since that time.

"In answer to your question as to my feeling whether your friend should marry this girl, I would say definitely not. I conceive her condition as being paranoid schizophrenia with all the chronicity illness that this diagnosis involves. If she can be placed in a hospital for a prolonged course of electric shock and possibly insulin shock, there is a vague possibility that she will recover. However, you know the recovery rate in paranoid schizophrenia is even less than in the other forms of schizophrenia, with the exception of hebephrenics. Certainly [s]he should not plan on marrying her in September of this year. I regret to have to give you this opinion, but I am sure it will be easier for your friend to stay out of trouble than it would be to get out of it once he was in.

"Sincere ...

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