Annulments of marriage are rare in today’s society, but the procedure is still available if the required legal grounds for annulment are present. The legal theory underlying annulment is that the marriage was never valid to begin with — meaning that the marriage never existed in the eyes of the law. In legal terms, marriages subject to annulment are classified as "void" or "voidable," and are sometimes called "nullified" marriages. An action for an annulment must be started by a certain time. The time limit depends on the type of marriage entered into and the state in which you live.
Annulment or Divorce?
Annulment is distinct from divorce in that a divorce terminates a previously valid marriage. Remember that the key to an annulment is that the marriage was never a valid one in the eyes of the law. As in divorce, however, in annulment cases the court may award custody of children of the marriage and require payment of child support and support of a party.
Legal Grounds for Annulment
Courts will order that a marriage be annulled if one of the following situations can be established:
- Mental Illness, Insanity or Retardation: If a person is married while mentally ill, insane or so mentally retarded that he or she could not knowingly and willingly consent to marriage, then the marriage may be annulled. Here, annulment would be granted on the theory that marriage is a consensual relationship, and most mentally ill, insane, or retarded people are considered incapable of giving legal consent.
- Temporary Insanity: If temporary or periodic insanity is claimed, the affected person’s condition at the time of marriage governs whether or not his or her possessed the legal capacity to marry. A marriage will not be annulled if it was entered into during a "lucid" interval between episodes of temporary insanity.
- Fraud: If one of the parties did not tell the truth, or misrepresented information in order to induce the other party to enter into the marriage, then the marriage may be annulled because of fraud.
- Lack of Consent or Duress: If a person is compelled to marry another under a threat of violence that would overcome the mind and will of a person of ordinary mental strength, the marriage may be annulled on the theory that marriage is a consensual relationship, and that compulsion under threat is inconsistent with consent. Actual threats of serious violence are required.
- Intoxication: If either spouse was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the marriage, or if it can be shown that there was such intoxication at the marriage ceremony that either spouse was incapable of knowing the nature of the marriage contract and its consequences, annulment will be granted.
- Inability to consummate the marriage (or "impotency"): To obtain an annulment for impotency, the person seeking annulment must prove that the other spouse was permanently and incurably impotent when the marriage was entered into, and that the person seeking annulment did not discover the fact until after the marriage.
- Lack of parental consent for an underage marriage: Most states have age requirements for marriage. Generally, persons under the age of 18 must have parental consent to marry. If an underage person managed to obtain a marriage license without court or parental approval, the marriage would be subject to annulment.
- One of the people is already married (bigamy): A marriage is subject to annulment when it is entered into before the dissolution of an earlier marriage of one of the parties becomes final.
- Incestuous marriage: All states prohibit marriages between parents and children — including grandparents and grandchildren of every degree; between brothers and sisters of the half as well as the whole blood; and between uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, and first cousins.
- Same-Sex Marriages: As of early 2005, all states except Massachusetts prohibit same-sex marriages, recognizing marriage only between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriages are therefore subject to annulment in almost all states.
- Mock Marriages: A marriage entered into with no intention that it be binding is considered a mock marriage. If the couple agrees to marry to accomplish a specific objective, such as legitimizing a child, the majority of courts will regard the marriage as valid and will not grant an annulment.
Consequences of Annulment
If your marriage is annulled, you lose the rights that you enjoyed as a married person, but you also are free to marry another person without going through the divorce process. Legal rights you will lose as a result of annulment include:
- Marital property rights: For example, if you are not the legal owner of the house, your former partner may sell it or lease it without your consent. The same is true of other properties of which you do not share legal ownership.
- Succession Rights: You are no longer legally entitled to a share in your former partner’s estate if he or she dies.
- Spousal Support, Maintenance or Alimony: Courts will not award any financial support to you. Child support may be awarded, however.
- Father’s Guardian Rights to a Child: Fathers are only given guardian rights if they can prove a reasonable belief that the marriage ceremony was valid, and that the child was born before or within ten months of the annulment order.