An annulment is a legal procedure that dissolves a marriage. In an annulment, the court effectively declares a marriage null and void, as if it never happened or was never legally valid in the first place. Importantly, if a marriage was ever legally valid, it can not be annulled. The separating couple must instead opt for a divorce.
A divorce is also a legal procedure that dissolves a marriage, with the marriage being considered terminated once the divorce has been granted. However, the fact that the couple was once married to each other remains. This fact could influence future obligations, such as alimony, or property division issues. When an annulment is granted, the marriage is treated as though it never happened, which means there is no potential for future obligations such as support awards.
Marriages may be either void, or voidable. It is important to note that a void marriage is automatically annulled. A voidable marriage may be annulled, but the marriage will become a valid marriage if the couple does not choose to timely annul the marriage. Family court judges are generally the party to issue an annulment at the request of one or both of the spouses. Mutual agreement tends to result in a more favorable outcome, as does agreeing on the reasons why an annulment is necessary.
What Are the Grounds For Annulment?
It is important to note that a party may not be granted an annulment simply because they wish their marriage never occurred. There are specific grounds for annulment that must be met. These grounds include but may not be limited to:
- Fraud or Misrepresentation: Fraud is an example of a circumstance which renders a marriage voidable, as opposed to being void. Fraud may have occurred when one party’s consent to the marriage was obtained through false pretenses. Fraud may also occur when one party agreed to the marriage only because of a specific but false representation made by the other party. The party seeking an annulment would need to prove that but for the false claim, they would not have entered into the marriage.
- A common example of this would be if one party tells the other that they can have children, but after the marriage license is obtained reveals that they cannot. However, if the fraud victim learns the truth and decides to stay married, the marriage becomes legally valid and may not be annulled;
- Incest: Incest renders a marriage void. In general, relatives closer than first cousins are not allowed to get married to each other. Thus, attempted marriage of a close relative results in immediate annulment once the marriage has been discovered;
- Coercion or Force: A valid marriage requires consent from both parties involved. If the consent of one party was obtained through the use of force, such as a threat on their life, the marriage is voidable. To annul a marriage that was entered into because of coercion or force, an action for annulment must be brought within four years of the marriage;
- Underage Party: Both parties must be of legal age to marry. The specific age requirement can vary by state, but in general the legal age to marry is eighteen. Additionally, parties may typically be married at age sixteen with both parent’s consent. If one of the spouses is under the legal age to marry, the marriage may be annulled. If the underage party turns eighteen and decides to stay married, the marriage becomes legally valid and may not be annulled;
- Bigamy: In the United States, it is illegal to be married to more than one person at a time. Bigamy occurs when one party is legally married and tries to marry someone else. It is a crime in all fifty states and as such, the marriage is void. The second marriage is automatically annulled once it is discovered; and
- Mental Impairment: As previously mentioned, consent is essential to any legal and valid marriage. If at the time of marriage, one or both of the parties suffers from a mental impairment and is not aware of what they are agreeing to, an annulment may be granted.
What Happens When an Annulment is Granted?
As mentioned above, when an annulment is granted, it is as if the marriage never happened. Courts will try to divide property in a way that leaves each spouse in the same financial position as before the marriage occurred. Therefore, if the parties did not have or obtain any marital assets, each party will be left with whatever money or property they brought into the marriage. Shared property or assets will likely be divided equally.
It is important to note that children born into a later annulled marriage are still considered to be legitimate children of the marriage. If upon annulment there are child support or custody issues, courts typically apply the state’s laws regarding divorced couple child support and custody issues.
In general, there is no time period after a marriage in which a petition for annulment must be filed. However, attempting to obtain an annulment sooner rather than later can result in a more favorable outcome. The longer the couple waits, the more complicated it may become to determine grounds for annulment as well as property division.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help With an Annulment?
Once again, a court will not grant an annulment simply because a couple wishes their marriage never happened. The petitioning party first must prove that there are grounds for an annulment, before an annulment may occur.
A skilled and knowledgeable family law attorney can help you prove the grounds necessary for an annulment, as well as help you gather evidence to support your claim. An experienced family law attorney will be knowledgeable about your state’s specific laws on annulment, and can advise you on your best legal course of action. Finally, an attorney will represent you in court as needed.