Annulment vs Divorce
We all know that a divorce ends a marriage. Hire a lawyer, divide your assets, determine child support, sign some papers, and you’re divorced; your marriage is over. However, there’s another legal process that ends a marriage that is seldom used but that might be pertinent in certain situations: an annulment. To annul a marriage is to legally decree that the marriage never took place.
There are two kinds of annulment: a civil annulment, which is granted by the state, and a religious annulment, which is granted by a church. Obviously, the former focuses on secular issues that would make a couple seek annulment rather than divorce; the latter focuses on religious matters.
In the United States, marriage and divorce are managed by state governments, not the federal government, and each state has its own rules pertaining to annulment. Generally, however, a state requires that at least one of the following be pertinent to your case before granting a civil annulment.
(1) One party to the marriage has been fraudulent, or has misrepresented himself or herself. For instance, a woman may have lied about her ability to have children — perhaps she never told her husband about a preexisting medical condition that has left her barren, knowing full well that her husband wished for children and fully expected to have them. Or, perhaps the new groom is already married — to a woman in a foreign country, for instance — and simply never told his new bride. Perhaps the bride has lied about her age and is not yet of the age of consent (between 16 and 18 in the United States, depending on the state). The groom may be gay, but married a woman wrongly thinking that somehow it might work out. Any of these situations might be sufficient cause for a state to grant a civil annulment.
(2) One party to the marriage has concealed a condition or circumstance that may have prevented the other party from agreeing to the marriage in the first place. For instance, a groom may have an addiction to alcohol or drugs that he never discussed with his bride (although the bride certainly should have seen some red flags before the marriage!). The groom may have an undisclosed felony conviction, or may indeed be wanted by law enforcement authorities. A bride may have children from a previous marriage whom she never mentioned to her groom, for whom she still has some responsibility. One of the pair may have a sexually transmitted disease, or be impotent. Any of these circumstances might prompt a state to grant a civil annulment on request.
(3) If the bride or the groom, for whatever reason, refuses or is unable to consummate the marriage, that’s grounds for annulment.
(4) Some serious misunderstanding may arise after a couple gets married that they somehow never discussed beforehand. Perhaps one desperately wants children but the other just as vehemently wishes to remain childless. A husband’s career may “suddenly” depend upon his having to work overseas for several years, while his bride refuses to leave her mother for more than a week at a time. Perhaps the bride fully anticipated that her mother would move into the spare bedroom, while the groom would rather live with a houseful of crocodiles than share a roof with his mother-in-law. A misunderstanding needs to be serious before a court will consider annulment, but it might be possible.
By the nature of the acceptable reasons for annulment, annulments usually take place very quickly after the wedding — within a few months or even a few weeks. (In many states, a request for annulment can only be filed within two years of the date of marriage; if you’ve been married longer than two years, you’ll have to get a divorce.) In an annulment, division of assets and child custody and support are all managed by the court (and/or by your respective lawyers) as with a divorce; any children that may have resulted from an annulled marriage are considered legitimate.
A religious annulment of marriage is an entirely different procedure; in the United States, it is generally sought by practicing Catholics who wish to remarry after divorcing their spouses. A Catholic annulment does require that you get a civil divorce first, and a divorce does not affect your standing in the Church or your ability to receive the sacraments. However, problems arise if you remarry without receiving a Catholic annulment first (and your former spouse is still living).
The place to start is with your local priest or deacon, who can advise you about what type of case to present. As with a civil annulment, a Catholic annulment requires a good reason — but the Church is broader in this regard. The inability to understand the full implications of a Catholic marriage, psychological incapacity, and unfaithfulness might all be valid reasons for annulment.
You will then need to present documentation of your marriage and your divorce, as well as names of witnesses who can speak about your relationship with your former spouse — the courtship, the wedding, and the marriage. The Church will appoint a marriage tribunal to hear your case; you will first interview with a member of the tribunal, and you’ll have an opportunity to work with an advocate who will help you through the process. The tribunal will then examine your case, reviewing all materials, contacting your witnesses, and interviewing your ex-spouse. The tribunal judge will eventually determine whether to grant annulment or not; his decision is subject to review by a three-judge panel. If you annulment request is turned down, your advocate can guide you through the appeals process.
Keep in mind that a Catholic annulment has no bearing on your legal standing. You are already divorced and, at least according to your state government, free to remarry. A Catholic annulment only ensures your continued good standing in the Church should you wish to remarry.
Protestants don’t face the same hurdles; they can get a civil divorce and remarry without tarnishing their standing in the church. Orthodox Christians, however, must follow a different procedure altogether. As with Catholics, you first need to obtain a civil divorce. Then you can petition for an “ecclesiastical divorce” to be granted by your church’s Spiritual Court. Consult with your parish priest.
For most separating couples, a divorce is fully sufficient; however, you might consider an annulment in certain circumstances, and all practicing Catholics who divorce and wish to remarry should consult with their priest about their situation.