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Massachusetts Annulments
Annulments in Massachusetts

Courts in Massachusetts rarely grant annulments, unless the petitioner can clearly demonstrate that the marriage is fraudulent or invalid. An annulment of marriage in Massachusetts is not the same as a divorce. With a divorce filing, one or both spouses petition the probate and family court to end a valid marriage; with an annulment, one or both of the parties must prove that the marriage was never valid or that the marriage should be voided because it is not legally recognizable.

To annul a marriage, the petitioner demonstrates sufficient grounds for an annulment. Grounds for annulment typically involve one spouses lack of capacity for marriage or some sort of fraud at the time of the marriage.

As in many other states, married parties in Massachusetts file a complaint for annulment at their local probate and family court. Massachusetts General Laws, Part II, Title III, Chapter 207, which allows either party to file and also allows one of the parties to affirm the marriage, governs annulments of marriage in Massachusetts.

Because Massachusetts grants annulments guardedly, partners often find a no-fault divorce is easier. For a marriage to be annulled, the petitioner must prove one of seven grounds for annulment. This is sometimes difficult, compared to a no-fault divorce where no proof is required.

When the court grants an annulment, it means no legal marriage ever existed. Both spouses can say that they were never legally married to each other. However, when a marriage is annulled, the judge can still decide child custody, visitation, and child support. The judge can divide property that the spouses have, and also order that an innocent spouse receive alimony. A marriage with children can still be annulled. In Massachusetts, children of an annulled marriage are considered legitimate unless the marriage was incestuous. Whether a child is declared legitimate or born out of wedlock, both parents have the duty to financially support the child.

Grounds

A marriage is either void or voidable. A void marriage is one that should not exist in the first place; it was against the law from its inception. Massachusetts finds a marriage void on one of three grounds:

  • consanguinity, when the parties are blood relatives, such as sister and brother;
  • affinity, when the parties are closely related through marriage, such as with a son and a mother-in-law; or
  • bigamy, where one party is legally married to another person at the time of the subsequent marriage. (If the petitioner knew of the other marriage, he or she must seek a divorce as opposed to an annulment. The court wont grant an annulment on bigamy if an objecting spouse can prove that the other spouse was aware of the previous marriage.)

The four voidable marriage grounds include:

  • Fraud; one partner concealed some important issue
  • Duress; one partner threatened or coerced a party into marrying
  • Impotency; the man cannot perform sexually, but the woman didnt know this until after the marriage
  • Incapacity; either spouse was incapable of understanding the marriage. For example, one spouse could have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time the wedding happened.

Voidable marriages dont break the law, so parties can remain married if they wish. Grounds for a voidable marriage allege that a person would not have married his or her partner if either had known all the facts. If the parties opt to remain married, a voidable marriage is binding and legal.

Massachusettss law allows the respondent to fight an annulment if he or she objects to it. If one partner files a petition for annulment on one of the voidable grounds, the respondent can answer that petition with a request to affirm the marriage. A request for affirmation makes it difficult for the court to annul the marriage, and it generally forces the filing spouse to file for a no-fault divorce instead.

Some grounds for annulment have additional caveats:

  • If a spouse is mentally incompetent, he or she must have been so impaired at the time of marriage as to not understand what was happening. This means there must be clear proof that the incompetent spouse was unable to consent.
  • An annulment based on fraud must be about something essential to the marriage. For example, courts have annulled marriages when a woman lied about being pregnant by the man, or when a man married a woman just for immigration status. Incurable venereal disease in one partner when the couple has not yet had sexual intercourse has been grounds for an annulment; however, courts have declined to annul when a spouse hides other serious diseases, or when a partner hid a divorce. Misrepresentations about prior life or personal characteristics are not grounds for an annulment.
  • In the case of coercion, the spouse must have been threatened to the point where they had no free choice but to get married.
  • In the case of underage marriage, if one spouse is under 18 but a parent or guardian consented to the marriage and a court approved, the marriage will not be annulled.
  • Ignorance of a particular fact means a party has to stop living with the other spouse immediately after discovering that fact to be eligible for an annulment.

In the case of voidable marriages, the victim party must petition the court. In the case of a void marriage, the parties do not need to petition the state court, because - by operation of marriage law - they were never legally married.

Procedure

In Massachusetts, the plaintiff files a complaint for Annulment in the probate and family court for the county where the spouses live. When one spouse still lives in the county where the couple last lived together, the complaint should be filed in that county. Either spouse, or a guardian of a spouse, can file the complaint. The party filing the petition is called the plaintiff; the other party is called the defendant.

After filing the complaint, the plaintiff serves the defendant with a copy of the complaint. The clerk at the probate and family court can provide options for serving the defendant. It is still possible to serve a spouse when he or she lives out of the Commonwealth or cannot be found.

The judge decides whether to grant the annulment. The judge will not grant the annulment unless the plaintiff shows convincing evidence of the grounds for annulment. If the judge believes the plaintiff has demonstrated proof, the judge signs an order granting the annulment.

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