A divorce ends a marriage. An annulment of a marriage is a civil court determination that there never was a valid marriage in the first place. A religious annulment is different than a civil annulment. This text is about civil annulments.
A person might feel so betrayed by a spouse that the marriage should be ignored. Think: cheating during the reception with a bridesmaid, not disclosing a child, or lying about one’s net worth. Those kinds of things aren’t grounds for an annulment. Grounds for an annulment are specific and limited. They must exist at the time of the marriage. Either: the marriage must have violated a specific law – one spouse still married to someone else or the spouses too closely related by blood; or one spouse lied about something essential to the marriage relationship – inability to have children, religious affiliation. Unlike for a divorce, people don’t have a right to an annulment. Even if both agree to an annulment, the grounds must be proven to a judge. This isn’t usually easy to do.
Although the result is that the marriage never happened, there are, just as with a divorce, financial orders, such as for alimony, child support, division of assets, and responsibility for debts. Those orders may not differ very much from the result of a divorce case. There may also be orders about child custody, parenting and support orders because an annulment won’t make a child illegitimate.
If it is harder to get than a divorce, why would one want an annulment? The stigma of being divorced is avoided and there may be a sense of vindication. More pragmatically, it may be possible to regain benefits from a prior marriage that were lost upon remarriage like alimony, social security, pension, insurance, inheritance rights, and other benefits. The court might restore the parties to their pre-marriage financial positions, which could benefit the wealthier spouse.
The disadvantages of seeking annulment include loss of benefits that divorced spouses have like social security benefits on the other spouse’s earnings or ability to continue insurance coverages. Since the grounds must be proved in court the case could take longer, cost more, and require disclosure of sensitive personal information in open court.
Annulment is not a “do it yourself” thing. Before going the annulment route, a legal analysis must be made that the grounds can be proven. Then the advantages and disadvantages and consequences need to be carefully weighed and compared to the likely results of a divorce. Annulment is a situation where advice, guidance and representation by experienced family law counsel is critically important.