Divorce | Family
What Are the Reasons for an Annulment?
by Francesca Toledo, J.D.
When couples are interested in ending their marriage, the usual path to take is divorce. However, when a marriage meets certain conditions, an annulment may be the better choice.
You’ll need to have a specific reason to ask for an annulment. The grounds for annulment vary by state but typically involve fraud, illegal couplings, or mental incapacity.
Common Reasons for Annulment
An annulment is an order declaring a marriage void, treating the marriage as though it never happened. Annulments may be easier and more appropriate to obtain than a divorce if one of the following situations occurred:
Bigamy occurs when a person enters into marriage but is still legally married to someone else. Since a person cannot be married to more than one individual simultaneously under U.S. law, a marriage entered into under these circumstances is considered invalid and may be annulled.
Fraud, Misrepresentation or Concealed Information
A judge may annul a marriage if one of the parties hid or lied about information that would have caused the other person to have second thoughts about getting married. Fraud or misrepresentation entail an act of deception intentionally committed by a person to influence another person to enter into the marriage.
These situations can be deemed to have occurred when one spouse deceives the other about a matter that is essential to the marriage. Examples include lying about one’s ability or intention to have children (including hiding a vasectomy), concealing a prior criminal history, or hiding an ongoing addiction.
If a spouse can prove they were deceived into entering the marriage, they may be eligible for an annulment.
Lack of Consummation
Lack of consummation refers to the act of sexual intercourse after marriage between both partners. A court may grant an annulment if one spouse is physically unable to have sex and did not disclose this to their spouse before they married. The issue may need to be incurable and to have existed at the time of the marriage for this to apply.
Marriages between close relatives, such as siblings or first cousins, are generally prohibited by law due to the increased risk of genetic issues in any resulting offspring. A marriage between closely related individuals is considered void and may be annulled.
The exact definition of incest varies per state and may carry additional penalties. In eighteen states, including Texas, cohabitation between cousins is considered incest. However, in states like Rhode Island and New Jersey, incest between consenting adults is not a criminal offense, but marriage is prohibited.
Forced consent is commonly cited as a reason to request an annulment.
Force occurs when you make someone do something against their will, thus creating a situation where coercion or intimidation was used to make a person do something they otherwise might not have been engaged in. A spouse enters the marriage under duress in a forced consent situation. Since they did not freely consent, the marriage may be annulled.
Mental Incompetence or Incapacity
A person unable to make sound decisions can be considered mentally incompetent. This situation can result from a permanent state of mind, or temporary incapacitation because of intoxication or mental illness.
A marriage may be annulled if it can be proven that one or both spouses lacked the mental capacity to understand the nature and consequences of the marriage at the time of the ceremony.
You can obtain an annulment because one party in the marriage was too young. Most states require individuals to be at least 18 years old or obtain parental consent if they are younger.
Civil vs. Religious Annulment
Annulments can be civil (that is, legal) or religious. Legal and religious annulment are separate procedures with distinct requirements.
To obtain a civil annulment, either spouse must file a petition (a legal request) with their local family court and state any reasons for the annulment. A civil annulment is granted by a judge, terminating the marriage. If you wish to get a legal annulment, a family law attorney can advise you or manage the entire process.
When the judge grants a civil annulment, it’s as if the marriage never existed.
A religious annulment is not part of nor recognized by the court system. Instead, it is obtained through the church or institution a spouse belongs to. In some religions, an annulment may be necessary before an individual can remarry within the faith or participate fully in certain religious activities.
The decision of a religious institution to grant an annulment does not automatically translate to a legal annulment recognized by the state. While a religious annulment may have significant implications for an individual’s faith and standing within their community, it is not equivalent to a civil annulment and does not impact the legal status of a marriage.
Differences Between Divorce and Annulment
A divorce formally ends a marriage. An annulment means that a valid marriage never existed to begin with. While divorces and annulments are alike in several ways, they’re distinct enough to make people weigh both options.
Legal Status of the Marriage
In a divorce, the marital status is legally dissolved, meaning that the rights and responsibilities between the spouses are terminated. However, in an annulment, the court officially declares the marriage to be void ab initio – in other words, invalid from the start – and that it never existed in a legal sense.
Marital Property and Division
In a divorce, marital property is typically divided between the spouses according to state laws and the case’s specific circumstances. This process can involve negotiations, mediation, or even a trial to determine a fair and equitable distribution of assets and debts. In an annulment, the way to divide property is handled differently. Since the marriage is considered to have never legally existed, the court will generally attempt to return the parties to their pre-marriage financial positions, with each spouse retaining their separate property.
Spousal Support and Alimony
In a divorce, one spouse may be awarded spousal support or alimony, depending on various factors such as the length of the marriage, each spouse’s income and earning capacity, and the standard of living established during the marriage. In an annulment, spousal support is generally not awarded, as the marriage is deemed to have never occurred. Exceptions may exist in some states or under specific circumstances, but spousal support is less common in annulment cases.
If the spouses in an annulled marriage had a prenuptial agreement, the agreement is invalidated, and thus the parties are released from the terms.
Child Custody, Visitation, and Support
Both divorce and annulment proceedings involve decisions about child custody, visitation, and support. The primary difference lies in the legal status of the parent’s relationship. In a divorce, the parent’s marriage is acknowledged, and custody and support decisions are based on the child’s best interests. In an annulment, the court will still make decisions about custody, visitation, and support, but the fact that the marriage is considered null may impact the legal rights and responsibilities of each parent.
Court Procedures and Timelines
Annulment and divorce proceedings also differ in terms of court procedures and timelines. Divorces, particularly contested ones, can take months or even years to resolve, depending on the complexity of the case and the level of conflict between the parties. Annulments tend to be quicker and less complicated since they involve fewer issues to resolve. Annulments also do not require couples to wait for a set amount of time before they can end their marriage.
However, obtaining an annulment can still be a challenging process, as the petitioning spouse must prove that valid grounds for annulment exist and gather the necessary evidence to support their claim.
Can You Get Annulments in Every State?
Every state allows for some type of annulment, with a few local variations.
Different states allow annulments for different reasons. For example, in states like Mississippi and New Jersey, they would consider impotency grounds for annulment. However, most other states do not consider this a valid reason. Likewise, the time in which you can file a Petition for Annulment varies across jurisdictions.
In Rhode Island there is no statutory provision for annulment. Marriages may, however, be invalidated by the court under certain circumstances.
In Washington State, you can file a petition called a “Declaration of Invalidity.” If the court declares the marriage invalid, it is deemed void from the start and treated as if it never legally existed, similar to an annulment.
Is There a Time Restriction To Seek an Annulment?
Generally, you can have a marriage annulled at any time. Nonetheless, certain states have certain time limits, depending on the reason for the annulment.
For example, in Colorado, you must seek an annulment within six months of discovering fraud, mental illness, or substance abuse. Additionally, if your spouse is unable to consummate the marriage, you must file for an annulment within one year of learning of their inability to consummate.
Usually, the sooner you seek an annulment, the better. A family law attorney in your area can provide better guidance regarding time limitations for annulments.
Finding the Right Lawyer for an Annulment
An annulment is a court decree that determines a marriage is null and void from inception. This can be a more complex process. For this reason, it is highly beneficial to have a family law attorney handle your annulment.
An unbundled lawyer is like a regular family law attorney, but they work on a “pay as you go” basis. You can handle certain aspects of your case and rely on your unbundled lawyer to take on the most important parts.