Most people who are looking to end their marriage seek a divorce, but occasionally we encounter a prospective client who wants an annulment. What is the difference between a divorce and an annulment, and is there an advantage to getting an annulment vs divorce?
Simply put, a divorce legally terminates a marriage. An annulment is a declaration that a marriage is void, and that there was never a valid marriage between the parties in the first place. While it might seem appealing to have the marital slate “wiped clean,” so to speak, there is a reason annulments are extremely rare: there are very few marriages that meet the criteria for annulment.
Before we discuss the grounds for annulment, it’s important to clarify that two types of annulment exist: legal annulment and religious annulment. A legal annulment is a declaration that a marriage is not valid in the eyes of the law; a religious annulment is a statement that a marriage is not valid under the tenets of a particular religion, usually the religion under which the marriage ceremony was conducted.
A legal annulment and a religious annulment may be granted for the same reason, but they are not related to one another. A legal annulment does not create a religious annulment, and vice versa. You may be able to be granted one without the other, and if you want both, you will need to go through both of the separate processes.
Having “grounds for divorce” or “grounds for annulment” means, essentially, having a legally acceptable reason for the termination or invalidation of a marriage. However, grounds for divorce are much broader. In Maryland, divorce grounds are broad and may be based on fault or may be no-fault, which means that anybody who wants a divorce can get one if they meet the legal criteria. There is no need to prove that one spouse did anything wrong to cause the breakdown of the marriage in a no-fault divorce.
The grounds for annulment are much narrower. They may vary somewhat from state to state, but are generally similar. In Maryland, you can get an annulment only if the marriage is void or voidable. A void marriage is one that is always invalid, such as a marriage in which one of the spouses was already legally married to someone else. Either of the parties to a void marriage, or a third party, can seek to have the marriage annulled. Other types of void marriages include those between close relatives or those in which one party was legally insane at the time of the marriage or otherwise mentally incompetent to enter into the marriage contract.
A “voidable” marriage is valid until it is declared to be invalid by a court. Only a wronged party, such as someone who was persuaded to marry by fraud, can seek to have a voidable marriage annulled. Examples of voidable marriages include:
The person who is seeking to end the marriage bears the burden of proof to show that the grounds for annulment have been met. Otherwise, the annulment will not be granted.
An annulment and a divorce both achieve the same result: the parties are not legally married at the conclusion of the proceedings. There are some reasons that a person might prefer an annulment to a divorce:
In general, however, there are few real advantages to annulment vs. divorce in Maryland, and there are plenty of reasons to seek a divorce vs. an annulment. The grounds for annulment are difficult to prove and may be embarrassing. There is no guarantee that a court will grant an annulment, so a party who wants to end the marriage may need to apply for a divorce anyway.
If you need to end your marriage, and you are unsure of whether you should pursue an annulment or a divorce, an experienced family law attorney can help you understand your options. To learn more about the relative merits of annulment vs. divorce, contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.