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A marriage annulment is a legal determination that a marriage never existed. Annulments are intended to help people who were never legally married as a matter of law, such as underage persons. They can also help people who never should have married because of a condition that existed at the time of the marriage, such as mental illness.

An annulment is different from a divorce because it is intended to leave the parties the way they were before the "marriage," without ongoing legal and financial entanglements such as spousal support. In most cases, an annulment is more difficult to obtain than a divorce. Contact a divorce attorney to determine whether a marriage annulment is right for you.


Grounds for Annulment

A person may seek a marriage annulment if the marriage is either "void" or "voidable," as determined by state law. A marriage is void if it was never legal to begin with. A declaration by the court is usually not necessary, though often done as a practical matter. The following conditions may render a marriage void:

  • If one or both parties were underage (the age varies by state) at the time of the marriage
  • If the parties are close blood relatives (a family law attorney can tell you the degree of relation that makes it illegal to marry in your state)
  • If at least one of the parties was already married
  • If the parties did not comply with state requirements such as having witnesses or parental consent
  • If the union is between two people of the same sex

A marriage also may be void if a voidable condition existed at the time of the marriage. The party seeking the marriage annulment on grounds of a voidable condition must prove one of the following:

  • One party misrepresented or concealed information in order to facilitate the marriage, such as failing to disclose a prior criminal record or the inability to have children.
  • One spouse was unable or refused to consummate the marriage.
  • There was a mutual mistake, negligent misrepresentation, coercion or duress (meaning one party was threatened or intimidated into marriage), or other cause which is grounds for declaring a contract void in a court of equity.
  • There was "want of understanding," meaning either or both parties did not understand what they were doing, possibly because they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol or suffered from mental illness. (Britney Spears famously had a marriage annulled for this reason.)

Essentially, a voidable marriage is one that theoretically would not have taken place without the voidable condition. For this reason, if the parties continue to live as a married couple after the condition is discovered, the marriage is no longer voidable.

An attorney can help determine whether your union qualifies for a marriage annulment because of a void or voidable condition.

Annulment vs. Divorce

The fundamental difference between a divorce and a marriage annulment is that a divorce ends a marriage that is no longer working, while an annulment declares there was never a legal marriage at all.

As such, there are different legal, financial and personal considerations:

Annulment is generally more difficult to prove. In most states, either spouse can unilaterally end a marriage with a no-fault divorce. A no-fault divorce does not assign blame to either party for the breakdown of the marriage. Either spouse need only claim separation, incompatibility, irreconcilable differences or irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. On the other hand, to get a marriage annulment (or a fault-based divorce), you must prove the grounds, and witnesses and/or other supporting evidence may be required.

Divorce has religious and societal implications. Historically, some couples preferred annulment over divorce because of a perceived stigma. However, with divorce becoming more and more common in our society this is less relevant today. A couple may also want an annulment because of religious considerations. Specifically, certain religions, such as Catholicism, do not permit remarriage within the faith. However, once a marriage is annulled (civilly, legally or both depending on the religion), it never took place, which may pave the way for a new marriage within the faith.

Financial Factors. Marriage is a contract between two persons that creates special rights and responsibilities during and after the marriage, notably property rights and alimony. Alimony helps an economically dependent spouse maintain the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage. Marital property, which is property and income acquired during (and sometimes prior to) the marriage, is divided when the marriage ends. In many states, if a marriage is non-existent, so are all the marriage entitlements.

Most marriages that are annulled only lasted a short duration, long before marital assets accumulated; as a result, alimony is usually not granted. However, if the marriage was of a longer duration, the court may grant a divorce only, or turn to other areas of law to find appropriate legal and financial remedies. The laws concerning marriage, marriage annulment and divorce vary by state, sometimes considerably. Contact a divorce attorney to learn more about family law in your state and whether a marriage annulment is right for you.

Did You Know?

A religious annulment invalidates a marriage within that faith only. A person cannot enter into a subsequent civil marriage without first obtaining a civil divorce or annulment of a previous marriage.

Statutes of Limitations

You can get an annulment of a "void" marriage at any time. However, if you are seeking an annulment because of a "voidable" condition, the statute of limitations begins when the voidable condition is discovered.