March 15, 2010

What is an Annulment?

Posted in Annulment tagged at 12:07 am by demetriagraves

Divorce is the usual remedy for a failed marriage but annulment is another way of ending a marriage. A lot of people do not know what an annulment is or if it could apply to their marriage. In general, an annulment is a legal action that makes a marriage void. It is different from a divorce because a marriage that has been annulled is considered to have never existed.  As with divorce, a decree of annulment ends a marriage. But, unlike divorce, a decree of annulment declares that no valid marriage ever existed because of some defect at its inception. Whereas, a decree of divorce dissolves a marriage that was validly contracted, but ultimately failed. When two people get divorced, all marriage records remain recorded as well as the divorce.

Compared with divorce, annulments have always been relatively rare, although they often appeal to devout Roman Catholics who, if a first marriage is annulled, can then remarry without objection from the Church. Today, we hear little about annulments unless they involve famous Catholic politicians trying to pave the way to religious remarriage, or celebrities trying to avoid the obligations of ill-considered quickie marriages contracted, often drunkenly, in Vegas.

An annulment can be granted for many reasons. The reason itself is often called an impediment and is why the marriage should not be valid. An impediment can be prohibitory meaning that it was wrong to enter marriage in the first place. Some common impediments or grounds for annulment in California are: incest, bigamy, unsound mind of one of the parties, one of the parties is below the age of consent, one of the parties was married to a person believed to be dead but isn’t, consent was obtained by fraud, consent was obtained by force, or one of the parties has an incurable physical incapacity.

The history of the law involving annulments based on fraud is interesting. Even going quite far back in American history, annulment laws in this country have generally included “fraud” as one of the available grounds. But not every proven case of deception results in a decree of annulment. Courts have often refused to nullify marriages for fraud if the innocent party was willfully blind to the truth or too easily fooled by statements made during courtship.

Even when a solid case of fraud is proven, courts might decide that it is outweighed by countervailing factors. A long marriage is harder to annul than a short one; a consummated marriage is harder to annul than an unconsummated one; and a marriage that has produced children was harder to annul than one with an empty nest.

Today, annulments based on fraud are sometimes granted regardless of whether the real test for fraud is met. Judges simply look the other way and treat “fraud” as a catchall mechanism for dissolving hasty or ill-considered marriages. According to some sources, fraud is the most common basis for annulment petitions today.

Some well known cases of annulment include: Darva Conger, who obtained an annulment of a marriage to a man she met and married during the course of the two-hour television show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? after learning that he had been charged with assaulting a prior girlfriend. Britney Spears obtained an annulment, in a Las Vegas court, of her 50-hour marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander based on “fraud” of unspecified origin. Actress Renee Zellwegger annulled her 128-day marriage to country crooner Kenny Chesney based on fraud as well, leading to rampant speculation in the tabloid press about the subject of the fraud; some guessed that Chesney might be gay. Zellweger issued a press release, however, reassuring fans that “fraud” is “simply legal language . . . and not a reflection of Kenny’s character.”

With an annulment, because the marriage never technically existed, issues of spousal support and community property typically (with some exceptions that I won’t get into here) fall by the wayside. However, if someone isn’t able to prove one of the grounds for an annulment, the court will not grant the nullity and the party would need to seek a divorce. If you have questions or would like more information about whether an annulment might be appropriate for you, please contact me for a free confidential initial consultation.