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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Annulments

Last week, Pope Francis made headlines by announcing a change in how the Catholic Church will handle annulments of marriages going forward, meant to make it easier for Catholics to have their marriage annulled. I would like to capitalize on this recent publicity given to a concept – annulling a marriage – that even many family lawyers lack experience with, and share a bit about how annulments work in the civil litigation context.

There is little relationship between what Pope Francis means when he refers to annulments, and what the law of New York means. In terms of beginning a marriage, there is some overlap between civil law and religious authority – certain religious figures are legally empowered to marry two individuals. The same is not true for annulments (or divorces, for that matter). A religiously granted annulment or divorce has no effect on the legal status of a marriage, absent some kind of legal proceeding. This was not always the case. Recall perhaps the most famous historical annulment, that of Henry the VIII, which created such a religious schism that it ended in the establishment of the Church of England. In the Catholic Church, an annulment allows a member of the Church to marry again within the Church. As this helpful FAQ explains, the Church has developed an annulment procedure that mirrors a legal proceeding.

In New York law, two kinds of marriage can be annulled. “Void” marriages are quasi-marriages that, because of some large legal impediment, were never valid at all. Marriages that are incestuous, or marriages in which one spouse was still married, are void. “Voidable” marriages, in contrast, may be legally valid. One of the parties to the marriage must seek an annulment to have the marriage declared invalid. Absent a court judgment, the marriage is valid in the eyes of the law. The most common type of voidable marriage is one in which one spouse was under the legal age of marital consent.

Complicated, right? Let me make it simpler: technically, void marriages do not need to be annulled. Either party can simply walk away. However, most matrimonial lawyers will tell you it is wise to have a formal annulment declared to protect yourself from any future legal claims. People in voidable marriages, in contrast, have to go through the whole court process and get an actual judgment.

The biggest question people have about legal annulments is, what does this mean for alimony and the equitable distribution of marital assets? In practice, nothing at all. Courts are free to award alimony and distribute property as they see fit in annulments. Nowadays, the only substantive difference between annulment and divorce is that in a successful annulment action, any prenuptial agreement entered into prior to the “marriage” is as void as the marriage itself.

Annulments in New York were not, however, always similar to divorces. Until 2010, New York was a “fault divorce” state. This meant that one spouse had to prove that the other spouse was guilty of some kind of malfeasance in order for a divorce to be granted, and the other spouse could contest that. Annulments thus allowed for certain legal grounds – like fraud – that were unavailable in divorce actions. Further, some case law indicates that annulments were themselves quasi-fraudulent, in that couples who mutually a desired a divorce would craft facts to entitle them to an annulment so that they could avoid the costly and difficult divorce process.

As it happens, most indications are that Pope Francis’s decree will not have a tremendous impact on US-based Catholics, as the Church here has been relaxing annulment procedures for some time. Regardless, it is an encouraging development that the Church wishes to reduce the stigma placed on Catholics whose marriages did not, in the end, work out.

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