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. This article discusses annulment only in its legal sense, and not in any religious sense. The nature and availability of religious annulment varies with each religious authority.
An annulment is a decree that a marriage was invalid from its outset. Whereas a divorce brings a valid marriage to an end, an annulment is a legal decree that effectively undoes the marriage, such that in the eyes of the law the marriage did not ever exist.
Annulments are typically available under the following circumstances:
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 which will qualify a couple for annulment will vary between jurisdictions.
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.
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 and/or judicial consent to the marriage, were followed.)
You or your spouse entered into the marriage as a result of threat, force or duress.
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.
Your spouse was married to another living person at the time of the marriage. (In some jurisdictions, such a marriage would be considered bigamous and void under the law, and thus it would not be necessary to also seek an annulment.)
Some jurisdictions also permit annulment where one spouse concealed the fact of a divorce, finalized only a short time before the wedding (e.g., less than one month before the marriage).
Some people believe that annulments will be available if they have only been married for a short time. Although state laws and policies vary, the duration of a marriage is not necessarily 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 relationship as man and wife 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.
Most jurisdictions 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.