Introduction to Annulments
Key Points
  • A divorce ends a marriage. An annulment makes it as though the marriage never took place.
  • Annulments void marriages that were never legal, for example one party was still married to someone else. Annulments also can void legal marriages.
  • Civil and religious annulments are two different things.
  • Typically an annulment is only an option if the marriage length is just a few years and less.

Divorce ends most marriages that fail, but a few end by annulment, a court ruling that treats the marriage as if it never took place. In civil courts, annulments work in one of two ways. One, if a marriage was never legal; for instance, when one party is already married, the union is said to be void, or a "nullity," i.e., it never existed; or, two, a marriage may be found a voidable marriage when it is valid until it is annulled. In the first case, the marriage never happened; in the second, the marriage happened but is in some way 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").

Moreover, there are two types of annulment: civil annulment, which a family court grants, and religious annulment, which the Catholic Church grants under the terms and conditions of ecclesiastical law. Remarriage requires a civil annulment, which makes a person single. Civil annulments should not be confused with those granted by the Catholic Church.

Some people mistakenly believe that courts routinely - and easily - annul impulse marriages, for example, between virtual strangers who get married after an alcohol soaked evening in the casinos of Las Vegas. This is not the case. Civil courts annul marriages reluctantly and only for good reason, and it is easier in many jurisdictions to get a no-fault divorce than to annul a marriage.

Normally, an annulment action must begin within a couple of years of the marriage. Some jurisdictions have strict guidelines about living with one another, and cohabitation can be grounds for refusing an annulment. Also contrary to what many people think, being married a short time is generally not, in and of itself, grounds for an annulment. In some cases and jurisdictions, courts consider alimony in an annulment; however, in some jurisdictions, annulled marriages bypass obligations normally associated with marriages that end in divorce, including property distribution, alimony, distribution of Social Security. In both void and voidable annulments, the children, if any, are legitimate.

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