An annulment is a procedure that dissolves a marriage. When a court grants a request for an annulment, the court is in effect declaring the marriage null and void. An annulment can be distinguished from a divorce. When a divorce is granted, the marriage is considered to be terminated. 

However, the fact that the divorced couple was once married remains. That fact can form the basis of a party’s future obligations, such as alimony or child support. In contrast, when an annulment is granted, the effect is to treat the marriage as though it never happened — as if it were void from its inception.

How Does a Person Obtain an Annulment?

A family court judge may issue an annulment at the request of one individual, or at the couple’s mutual request. Generally, a judge will be inclined to grant the annulment request if the parties agree to an annulment, and to the reason(s) for why the annulment is sought, 

However, in many instances, only one party seeks an annulment. A party that seeks an annulment can do so by bringing an annulment action in family court. If the other person does not want an annulment or does not believe there are grounds for one, the judge will hold a hearing. At the hearing, the judge will consider evidence from both sides as to whether an annulment can be granted. Typically, these hearings are not held before a jury.

What are the Grounds for Annulment?

A marriage cannot be annulled simply because the couple is dissatisfied with the marriage, or because they wish, for whatever reason, that the marriage never occurred. A party must set forth a specific ground for the annulment to be granted. Grounds for annulment include: 

  • Fraud or Misrepresentation: Here, one party’s consent to the marriage was obtained by trick or under false pretenses. Sometimes, a person agrees to enter a marriage only because of a specific representation made by the other party. If that representation turns out to have been falsely made, a court may grant an annulment. A party seeking an annulment on this basis must generally show that but for the false representation, that party would not have entered the marriage. 
    • There are several examples of false representations that can serve as the basis for obtaining an annulment. One example is when one person falsely tells the other person they are not married to anyone else, and on the basis of that representation, the parties obtain a marriage license. An annulment may be granted in such a case, because the consent of the party seeking the annulment was obtained only through deception;
  • Incest: The parties are related by blood to a sufficiently close degree that the marriage violates the state's incest laws. State incest laws ban sexual relationships, or marriages, between parties that have a close family relationships. 
  • Underage: Here, one of the parties, at the time the marriage was entered into, was below the age of consent in their state. If this party was underage, and their parent(s) or guardian(s) did not consent to the marriage, an annulment may be sought;
  • Mental impairment: Parties entering into a marriage must do so knowingly and voluntarily, with the understanding of what a marriage is. At the time of the marriage, one   or both parties may suffer from a mental impairment. If the impairment is severe enough that the person is not voluntarily and knowingly consenting to enter into matrimony, an annulment may be granted; 
  • Coercion or force: A party must enter into a marriage knowingly and voluntarily. If one person coerces (for example, by physical force or credible threats of physical force) the other to marry, the coerced party may obtain an annulment; and
  • Bigamy: Bigamy is defined as one individual being married to multiple individuals. State laws generally ban bigamy. If one spouse discovers that the other was already in another legal marriage at the time of marriage, the bigamy can serve as the basis of an annulment.

What Happens When an Annulment is Granted?

Annulled marriages are regarded as though they never existed. Therefore, courts faced with how to divide assets in an annulment situation attempt try to leave the couple in the same financial it was in before the marriage ever happened. This means that if the parties did not have any marital assets, the parties will each be left with whatever money or property they brought to the marriage with them on their own.

Sometimes, couples obtain shared property or assets before the annulment. Courts must decide how the property should be divided. Generally, courts divide shared property, and shared debt, on an equitable basis, or equitably. 

In equitably dividing assets and debt, courts look at the facts and circumstances in each case. Courts attempt to reach an equitable, or fair, resolution. A fair resolution for both parties involves taking each parties’ specific needs (including financial needs) and circumstances into account.

What Happens to Children Born During a Marriage that is Later Annulled? 

Generally, children born to a couple whose marriage is later annulled, are considered legitimate. In other words, after the annulment, both parties to the annulled marriage are the legal parents of a child, just as they would be had the marriage ended in divorce. 

If, upon annulment, there are child support and child custody issues, courts will generally apply the state’s laws regarding divorced couple child support and custody issues. 

Is There a Time Frame for Obtaining an Annulment?

Generally, there is no period of time (e.g., three years, ten years) after the marriage by which an annulment must be sought. Practical considerations, however, might make obtaining an annulment earlier, rather than later, a prudent idea. The longer a party or couple waits or decides to request an annulment, the more complicated it becomes for a court to equitably divide assets and work out child custody and support issues.

A party who brings an action for annulment later rather than sooner may have a harder time presenting evidence. This is because, among other reasons, memories fade, details are forgotten, and witnesses may die or become unavailable, with the passage of time.

Also, many people seek an annulment to escape a social or religious stigma of divorce. Delay or wait in obtaining an annulment is, in effect, a delay in a person’s ability to remarry, whether they wish to do so consistently with their faith, or for other reasons unique to the individual.    

Do I Need a Family Law Attorney for Help with Annulment Issues?

The process of obtaining an annulment, or defending against a claim or one, can be time-consuming and difficult to navigate. You may therefore wish to consult with a family law attorney.

The attorney can assess the facts and circumstances of your case, and advise you as to what an annulment proceeding entails. The attorney can also recommend options as to how to proceed, and can represent you at hearings.