An annulment is a legal proceeding that declares a marriage void. While a divorce results in the dissolution of a valid marriage, an annulment results in the nullification of the marriage — as if it never existed in the first place. The distinction can have significant legal consequences. For example, spouses getting divorce may be entitled to alimony, equitable distribution of assets and other rights recognized under state statutes. Yet these rights do not exist unless there is a valid marriage in the process of being dissolved. If the marriage is annulled (and therefore, if it never actually existed), then such statutory rights as alimony and equitable distribution of property do not exist either.
Parties who qualify for an annulment are not without legal rights, however. They may be entitled to certain financial payments or property transfers. If an annulment case is properly prepared, a Family Court judge can be persuaded to make the necessary equitable adjustments between the parties.
Grounds for annulment usually fall into four major categories: (1) The marriage is legally invalid for one reason or another; (2) The parties did not possess the mental state of mind to give their voluntary consent to the marriage; (3) One of the parties was defrauded into getting married by the other party; and (4) A party is sexually unable to consummate the marriage. Let’s look at each of these categories:
- Invalid Marriage. If a party is already married to somebody else at the time of the marriage, the second marriage will be considered bigamous and thus unlawful and will constitute a ground for annulment. Likewise, if a party has married a family member whose level of kinship is prohibited by law (such as a sibling or first cousin), an annulment will be authorized. Marriages by and to minors may also be nullified if parental consent was required and not obtained.
- Lack of Voluntary Consent. A marriage may be void if one or both of the parties are drunk or under the influence of narcotic substances at the time of the wedding. Similarly, if a party is forced to get married under a threat of violence, blackmail, or other forms of coercion or duress, the marriage was will be voidable. Any set of facts that persuasively demonstrates that a party did not give his or her consent voluntarily to be married must constitute a basis for annulment.
- Fraudulent Misrepresentations. An annulment can also be granted if a party misleads, tricks or deceives a party into wedlock. Such frauds can occur as a result of misrepresentations of fact as well as omissions of fact. Thus, for example, it may be a basis for an annulment if a woman fraudulently tells her future husband that she wants to build a family when, in fact, she intentionally refuses to have children after the wedding day. An annulment may also be allowed, for example, if a husband fails to disclose to his future wife that he has another identity and a criminal past.
- Physical/Sexual Incapacity. Where a party is incurably impotent, a court may also grant an annulment, provided that the party’s sexual incapacity was not known before the wedding.
An annulment may be appropriate for some couples, particularly where religious or cultural reasons require a complete elimination of the marital relationship. In other cases, however, an annulment may inappropriate, such as where there are children or where it is important to qualify for certain post-marital rights. Spouses who annul their marriages will not be entitled to certain health insurance benefits, including COBRA continuation coverage, and may also be denied certain retirement benefits, including spousal Social Security benefits.
Fallacies and Misconceptions. A party who is considering an annulment should also be careful not to fall prey to several of the popular misconceptions about annulment. These include:
- Annulments Are Granted by the Church, Not the Courts. Some religious faiths grant a form of religious annulment. They may, in fact, require an “annulment” under their religious tenets in order for a member of their faith to remarry. However, a religious “annulment” does NOT have any legal effect whatsoever. If you qualify for a legal annulment, you need to file for the annulment in a court of law, not a church.
- Annulments Must Be Filed Shortly After the Divorce Takes Place. Not true. In most states, there is no deadline for filing an annulment, provided that grounds exist to nullify the marriage. However, timing can be important. If a party ratifies a void marriage by accepting her spouse’s fraud and if they continue to live together as husband and wife, that party may lose the right to seek an annulment. If an underage party who got married without parental consent continues to live as husband and wife until both parties achieve the age of majority, the right to annulment may likewise vanish. Some states may recognize a statute of limitations or other time limit for specific grounds for annulment.
- Annulments Are Faster and Cheaper Than Divorces. An annulment action is treated by almost all courts in the same manner as a divorce case. Thus, it requires the same essential steps in terms of pleading a case, filing papers and following the necessary procedures to obtain a final judgment. An annulment case, in and of itself, is no faster to complete in the court system than a divorce case, and is generally no less expensive in terms of court filing fees or legal fees. Like a divorce, however, an annulment case may minimize legal fees if the parties reach agreements to settle the key issues and streamline the proceedings.
For more than 30 years, the Law Offices of Mark S. Guralnick has handled annulment cases and has guided clients strategically on how to protect and preserve their legal rights. If you have any questions or concerns about this area of the law, do not hesitate to contact us.