Annulment Law

Many people who are considering bringing an end to their marriage come to their lawyers with the idea of getting an annulment instead of a divorce. Although the motives vary, many people prefer the concept of annulment, the voiding of a marriage by the court, to divorce, the judicial termination of the marriage.

How Is Annulment Different From Divorce?

An annulment is a decree obtained from a court that a marriage was invalid from its outset. While a divorce brings a valid marriage to an end, an annulment issued by a court effectively undoes the marriage, such that in the eyes of the law the marriage did not ever exist.

In addition to the legal meaning of annulment, the voiding of the marriage, people may seek an annulment for religious reasons. The nature and availability of religious annulment varies with each religious authority. A religious annulment does not legally end a marriage.

When Is Annulment Available?

Each state has its own annulment laws, and some state laws are more stringent than others. Annulments are typically available under the following circumstances:

  • Marriage Between Relatives: You and your spouse are close biological relatives, and should not have qualified for marriage under the law. For example, you and your spouse are parent and child, parent and stepchild, aunt and nephew, uncle and niece, or grandparent and grandchild. The precise parameters of the relationship that will qualify a couple for annulment will vary between jurisdictions.

  • Mental Incapacity: One of the spouses did not have the mental capacity to enter into a marriage contract. By way of example, at the time of the ceremony a spouse may be incapacitated due to a mental disability, whether temporary or permanent in nature, or from intoxication.

  • Underage Marriage: One of the spouses was below the legal age to consent to marriage. In some jurisdictions, the availability of annulment may also depend upon whether the proper legal requirements, such as parental or judicial consent to the marriage, were followed. In most jurisdictions if an annulment is not sought within a limited time after the minor spouse reaches the age of majority, the marriage will no longer be voidable and the parties will have to seek a divorce.

  • Duress: You or your spouse entered into the marriage as a result of threat, force or duress.

  • Fraud: You or your spouse were fraudulently induced into entering the marriage. Fraud may include the concealment of an important fact, such as permanent impotence or sterility, a criminal history, or infection with a sexually transmitted disease.

  • One Spouse Was Already Married (Bigamy): Your spouse was married to another living person at the time of the marriage.

    In many jurisdictions, such a marriage is considered bigamous and void under the law, and thus it is not to also seek an annulment. However, even when the marriage is legally void, in order to make sure that there's a clear legal record of the end of the marriage it can make sense to still obtain an annulment.

Some jurisdictions also permit annulment where one spouse concealed the fact of a divorce that was finalized only a short time before the wedding (For example, a divorce that was finalized less than one month before the marriage).

Important Facts About Annulments

  • Some people believe that annulments will be available if they have only been married for a short time when they seek to end the relationship. Although state laws and policies vary, the duration of a marriage is not normally a factor in the determination of whether an annulment is available.

  • For annulment based upon fraud or deception, it may be necessary for the spouse seeking the annulment to end the marital relationship upon learning of the deception. If cohabitation continues once the innocent spouse knows of the fraud, many jurisdictions will consider that the spouses resolved the issue between themselves and that the fraud was thereby rendered a non-issue.

  • Many courts are extremely reluctant to grant annulments once a married couple has had children.

  • An annulment may limit your ability to share in the marital estate, or to obtain spousal support (alimony) which would otherwise result from divorce.

  • In many states, choosing to continue to live with your spouse after you learn grounds for annulment can potentially cause those grounds to be deemed forgiven, such that an annulment is no longer available.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.