An annulment of a marriage is very different from a divorce. A divorce is the dissolution of a valid marriage, and is traditionally granted when one of the spouses does something which legally constitutes grounds for divorce. More recently, a system of “no-fault” divorce has become the norm in the vast majority of U.S. states. However, the essential point remains the same: a legally valid marriage is being dissolved.

An annulment, on the other hand, is a declaration by a court that the “marriage” was never legally valid in the first place. If a marriage is legally valid, it can never be annulled, and the spouses will have to resort to divorce.

A marriage may be either “void” or “voidable”; when a marriage is void, it is automatically annulled. When a marriage is voidable it can be annulled at the option of one of the spouses, but will become a valid marriage if this option is not exercised.

How Is a Marriage Void?

In California, there are 2 grounds that void a marriage: incest and bigamy. In California, relatives closer than first cousins are not allowed to get married, and if they do, the marriage is immediately annulled when the relationship is discovered. Bigamy is when somebody who is legally married tries to marry someone else. This is a crime in all 50 states, and the later marriage is never valid. So, when and if the previous marriage is discovered, the later marriage is automatically annulled.

How Is a Marriage Voidable?

Various facts can make a marriage voidable, rather than void. These include force, fraud, and minority.

  • Force: marriage requires the consent of both parties to be valid. Consent is not valid, however, if it was obtained by force, such as a threat to the person’s life, or the life of someone close to that person. However, if the parties freely live together as spouses, the marriage may become valid. To annul a marriage entered into under force, an action for annulment must be brought within 4 years after the marriage.
  • Fraud: if consent is obtained through fraud, the marriage can be annulled by the victim of the fraud. Some fact which was essential to the spouse’s decision to get married must have been misrepresented. However, if the victim of the fraud learns all the relevant facts, and decides to stay married, the marriage becomes legally valid, and is not annulled.
  • Minority: if one of the spouses is under the minimum legal age to marry (18 in most states), they have the option of annulling the marriage. However, if they turn 18, and then decide to stay married, the marriage becomes valid.
  • Inability to Consummate: ‘Consummating’ a marital relationship means to have sexual intercourse for the first time after a marriage license is obtained. Although inability to consummate is often understood as inability to have sex, some courts may narrow this annulment option by requiring that the parties are ‘psychologically’ unable to consummate the union rather than merely physically.
  • Homosexuality: A hotly debated issue, but some courts will grant annulment if a person conceals their homosexuality from their spouse. Other courts may grant annulment if a party in the marriage is homosexual. Of course, if the marriage was between two homosexuals to begin with, then homosexuality will not be grounds for annulment.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Get an Annulment?

The legal process for obtaining an annulment can be very perplexing and stressful, so it is wise to consult with a family attorney. Working with an experienced lawyer will help you understand your rights and help protect your interests.