Divorce vs. Annulment: Why the Difference Makes a Difference

Family Law and Divorce

Marriages can be ended in a number of different ways. With the exception of the death of one spouse, there are only two legal options for ending a marriage: divorce and annulment. Both proceedings have the same net effect. They end the relationship between the two parties. Where they differ is in legal recognition of the original marriage. This is a significant difference that makes a real difference in how the two parties go their separate ways.

Note that this post deals with annulments from a civil perspective. There are religious annulments as well, but these are not a matter of civil law. They are matters for religious leaders to work out among their congregants. With that said, let us discuss divorce and civil annulment.

Legal Marriage and Divorce

Divorce is a legal proceeding that follows a legally recognized marriage. Let’s say John and Mary got married five years ago. They obtained a marriage license from their state after submitting a completed, signed application through the local clerk. Their marriage license is a legal document showing that the union is recognized by state law.

The only way to cancel that license, so to speak, is through legal divorce. Here’s the key: a legal divorce recognizes that the marriage was legal and valid from the beginning. That is not the case with annulment. Why does it matter? Because there are some issues related to divorce that do not apply in an annulment scenario.

Annulling an Invalid Marriage

Chicago family law firm ABM Family Law describes annulment as “a legal procedure within secular and religious legal systems for declaring a marriage null and void.” In so doing, a court determines that the marriage was never legitimate to begin with. It was invalid from its very foundation. A bigamy scenario offers a clear-cut example.

Bigamy is almost universally outlawed in the US. Let’s say John and Mary are splitting because it was discovered that John has another wife that Mary never knew about. The wife lives in another state. Because John never legally divorced her, he is still married to her.

Based on this, a court could declare John and Mary’s marriage null and void. It was never valid because John is already married and Mary never knew about his wife. Had she known and decided to marry him anyway, the court would have a harder time granting annulment.

As a side note, ABM Family Law also says that annulments are generally retroactive. That has implications covering everything from shared assets to future support.

How Couples Split up

The differences between divorce and annulment determine how couples split up. In a divorce scenario, there needs to be some legal reckoning to settle issues relating to assets, financial support, child custody, etc. That is not always the case with annulment.

Courts will step up in an annulment scenario to guarantee any children the couple might share are taken care of. But beyond child related issues, courts are reticent to interfere with annulments. In most cases, couples simply go their separate ways and that’s the end of it.

In cases where couples want an annulment despite legally owning joint assets, a court may recommend mediation. The couple ultimately has to determine how to handle their shared assets.

There are legitimate reasons for choosing annulment over divorce. However, proving the case for an annulment can be more difficult. At any rate, couples need experienced attorneys to help them when their marriages go bad. Most cases are not as simple as shaking hands and walking away. There are far too many issues that have to be settled.

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