Key Points
  • Annulments typically come in one of two forms. A marriage is annulled because a spouse was currently married when the second marriage took place. In this situation the second marriage is technically void (never actually valid). The other type of annulment pertains to a valid marriage that should not have taken place for a specific reason such as fraud, duress etc.
  • An annulment has the court legally recognize that a marriage never existed or took place which is different from a divorce that simply dissolves a marriage.
  • Religious annulments are separate from legal annulments.

An annulment is a court action that declares a marriage null and void, and it treats the marriage as if it never took place.

Although it is not as common as it once was, a marriage annulment states that a marriage never existed. Whereas divorce is the end of a marriage, an annulment decrees that, for various reasons, the union was not a legal marriage due to a defect in the legal marital contract.

Some people mistakenly believe that courts routinely - and easily - annul marriages that happen on an impulse, for example, between virtual strangers who get married after a night of alcoholic revelry in the casinos of Las Vegas. This is not the case.

Civil annulments may involve a variety of elements- bigamy, incest, fraud, insanity, mental disability, incompetence, duress, misunderstanding and incapacity due to drugs or alcohol- but usually annulments are granted because of a blood relationship between partners that prohibits the marriage; a diminished mental capacity, whether through illness or through toxins (drug or alcohol abuse); legal disqualification (one spouse not legally able to marry, due to being married or being underage); fraud, threats or misrepresentation. The most common reasons for an annulment is one of the spouses is not legally able to marry, either because of being under age or married already.

Civil courts annul marriages in one of two ways. One, for instance when one spouse was already married, the union is said to be void, or a "nullity," i.e., it never existed. Or, two, a marriage may be found voidable when it is valid until or unless it is annulled. In the first case, the marriage never happened; in the second, the marriage happened but is flawed so that it may be voided. The first is said to be void ab initio ("from inception"); the second is said to be voidable nunc pro tunc ("from now for then"). Thus, a marriage may be found void ab initio because of bigamy, or it may be found voidable nunc pro tunc because of fraud or legal incompetence, or misrepresentations about, for example, the desire to have or not to have children, or the failure to consummate the marriage; but in both cases, the court hands down a final decree or judgment of annulment.

Annulment versus Divorce

In an annulment, "the law acts as if there were no marriage between the parties. Thus, none of the rights or obligations that typically flow between the spouses - are adjudicated in an action for annulment," says Marlene M. Browne, the author of The Divorce Process Empowerment Through Knowledge. "Plainly stated, upon the granting of a spouse’s request for an annulment, the parties are left as if no marriage had occurred - ever. Consequently, there is no distribution of marital or community property, no alimony, or any derivative rights, such as Social Security, insurance, or retirement benefits." An annulment, however, may establish the terms and conditions of child support for any children born of the annulled marriage. Children of an annulled marriage are legitimate.

Other Considerations

In general, courts do not award annulments based on one spouse’s misrepresentation of his or her marital history. These misrepresentations generally involve the number of times a person has previously been married and the circumstances under which previous marriages ended. In many jurisdictions, these misrepresentations must rise to the level that they interfere with what are termed the "essentials of marriage."

When courts do annul marriages on the basis of fraud, they do it if the misrepresentations "directly contradict the defrauded party’s religious belief"; for example, in the case of a subsequent marriage involving an observant Catholic when the new partner claims that he or she is a widow or a widower when in fact he or she is divorced. (New York is one state that allows for annulments based on a concealment of a spouse’s prior marital status.)

Generally, the successful plaintiff in an annulment action must prove he or she would not have married the other spouse if the truth had been known.

Courts are more reluctant to annul marriages where there are children because the children of annulled marriages are legitimate.

Depending on the state, these basic standards can vary. Some states may have time limits for filing.

The grounds for receiving a civil annulment vary from state to state and county to county.

Generally, there is a tight time line for receiving a civil annulment. An annulment action usually has to be filed within two years of the marriage date. Some states have strict guidelines about living with one another, and refuse annulments to people who are cohabiting.

Annulments in the Catholic Church

An annulment in the Catholic Church is an ecclesiastical judgment within the Catholic Church that a marriage is null. Religious tribunals grant annulments.

The Catholic Church does not permit divorce because it holds that marriage is an inviolate sacrament, so religious Catholics sometimes seek an ecclesiastical annulment. A person may seek a canonical annulment because he or she is a divorced Catholic who has fallen in love and wants to marry in the church, a divorced non-Catholic who wants to marry his or her Catholic fiance in the church, a divorced and already married Catholic or non-Catholic who wants to bring a civil marriage into the church, a divorced non-Catholic who wants to become Catholic and remarry, a divorced Catholic who wants the option of marrying in the Church in the future or for "peace of conscience."

American tribunals declare some 50,000 annulments each year, writes Edward N. Peters, the author of 100 Answers To Your Questions on Annulments, and each year over 100,000 people, "including thousands of non-Catholics, are directly involved in the Church’s annulment process."

A Catholic seeking to escape a marriage must end it in civil court, either by divorce or civil annulment. A canonical annulment exists within the church, not the secular, civil world beyond it. Therefore, an annulment within the church is not legally valid and it does not free a person to marry civilly, outside the church. In fact, ecclesiastical tribunals demand that a civil divorce or annulment happen before a religious annulment can be considered.

Tribunals consider what are termed "diriment impediments" or grounds for annulment that include consanguinity, the psychological state producing the ability to consent; honesty of intention to contract a lifelong relationship and produce children; deception of one party by the other in order to obtain consent; abduction with the intent to compel marriage; failure to adhere to the requirements of canon law for marriage; crime, "bringing about physically (or through moral cooperation) the death of one’s own spouse or the spouse of another, with intentions of marriage"; force or grave fear.

To put the reasons in more colloquial terms, the most common reasons for an annulment are that at least one partner did not full and freely consent; or someone was not mature enough to understand what he or she was doing; or someone entered the marriage without intent to be faithful; or that one of both partners did not intend to be open to children.

Marriages annulled by the Church are considered annulled ab initio.

Contrary to what some Catholics and non-Catholics believe, a canonical annulment is not a "Catholic divorce." "A declaration of nullity is not a dissolution of a marriage; it is not a Church divorce," writes Michael Smith Foster, the Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of Boston and the author of Annulment: The Wedding That Was. "Rather, it is a judicial finding that a marriage had not been brought about on the wedding day, as the faith community had presumed."

An annulment is a finding by the Catholic Church that a marriage was not entered into with the right intentions, including faithfulness throughout marriage and a willingness and physical ability to procreate. Annulment simply deals with only the intent on the day the vows were exchanged. A canonical annulment does not "end" a marriage; it signifies that one never existed in the first place. This is a fundamental difference from divorce, which recognizes a marriage, took place, and then ends it. Canonical annulments concern the will at the time of the marriage, so that subsequent acts - such as adultery or contraception - do not necessary invalidate the marriage, nor support an argument for annulment.

Like a civil annulment, any children that were born to the marriage are still considered legitimate. This means that child support will still be established, regardless of whether the marriage is legally recognized or not.

After receiving it, the person who receives one may marry in the Church. His or her flawed marriage is said to be void, or a nullity; that is, it never existed. By this route, in the eyes of the Church at least, it is null.

A Catholic considering annulment should speak with a priest in order to find out the process. Annulment involves appearing before the tribunal, with witnesses and proof that the marriage was not valid from the start. The work of the tribunal can take up to a year or more for an ecclesiastical court to make a ruling. The tribunal issues a declaration of nullity. This action can cost as much as $1,000.

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