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How Marriage Annulments Differ from Divorces and the Grounds for Obtaining a Marriage Annulment

Divorces and annulments both have the same effect--they dissolve the marriage. However, they differ in how they treat the marriage. When people get a divorce, they are still recognized as having been married previously. An annulment, on the other hand, treats the marriage as though it never existed. Some situations place people in such awkward positions, that they simply want to treat the marriage as though it never existed. Some people do not want the stigma they believe attaches to divorce. Others may prefer an annulment for religious reasons.

Civil Annulments

Annulments are a form of relief for people who were placed in situations in which they never should have been married. Because civil annulments treat the marriage as though it never existed, a person must have a pretty good reason to obtain one. Typically, one of the following requirements must be met.

  • Fraud or misrepresentation. Fraud or misrepresentation occurs when one of the spouses has lied about something. Misrepresentation of things like the ability to produce children, not being married to anyone else, marrying just to gain citizenship, and being old enough to consent to marriage, are all grounds for an annulment based on fraud or misrepresentation.
  • Concealment. If one of the spouses hid a major fact, the other may have grounds for an annulment. This could include a substance abuse problem, a felony conviction, children, impotency, or sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Misunderstanding. Usually, a misunderstanding that constitutes an annulment is based on the desire to have children. This misunderstanding must be substantial to the marriage to constitute grounds for an annulment.
  • Impotency or Incest. If one of the spouses is incurably impotent, the other spouse has grounds for an annulment, as long as that spouse was not aware of the impotency prior to the marriage. Two people who are too close in familial relation to marry also have grounds for an annulment. This could include whole or half siblings, first cousins, parents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, etc.
  • Lack of consent. Both parties must have the mental capacity to consent and must consent voluntarily to the marriage. If a party was forced or threatened into the marriage, the marriage can be annulled. One lacks mental capacity to consent to the marriage if they were insane or intoxicated at the time of the marriage.

These things are usually discovered early on in the marriage, and so, there typically is no need to divide property or decide on issues regarding children. However, most state laws do govern how to decide such issues should an annulment of a long-term marriage occur. Check with your state's laws regarding property division and child custody, visitation, and support. If you do have children from an annulled marriage, these children are not considered illegitimate.

Religious Annulments

While the courts have their grounds for obtaining an annulment, the grounds for obtaining a religious annulment are different. However, both types of annulments have essentially the same effect--the marriage is treated as though it never existed.

In the Catholic Church, a diocesan tribunal, rather than a court of law, decides whether the marriage bond was less than a covenant for life, because it was lacking in some way from the very beginning. Either or both parties may obtain an annulment if they can show adequate grounds that the marriage was majorly lacking in some way. Grounds for finding that the marriage was lacking include a lack of:

  • Openness and honesty
  • Maturity
  • Voluntarily entering the marriage
  • Appropriate motivation
  • Emotional stability
  • Capacity to establish a loving marital community

If the tribunal grants the annulment, then both parties may remarry in the Catholic Church. Many churches do require, however, that a party from an annulled marriage undergo counseling before remarrying to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. Like in the court of law, the legitimacy of the children of an annulled marriage is not questioned.

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