When Can a Marriage Be Annulled?

People often come to lawyers asking for help getting their marriages annulled.  They arrive with the belief that a brief marriage with no children means they can avoid the pain, complexity and cost of a divorce and simply have the marriage annulled.

People get this idea from old movies and television.  Yet, we all know TV and movie plots play fast and loose with the facts. Some people confuse ecclesiastical annulments with the legal variety.  In reality, the grounds to legally annul a marriage are very restricted.  The length of the marriage does not matter, nor does the lack of children.  What matters is proving the marriage was void or voidable at the time it took place. 

Civil versus Ecclesiastical Annulments.

The Roman Catholic Church and some protestant churches take the position that marriage is a sacred bond and do not allow divorced people to remarry in the church.  Some of these churches offer a religious route to dissolve the marriage (an ecclesiastical annulment) that will allow the individual to remarry in the church.  An ecclesiastical annulment has no legal effect outside of the church.

What Makes a Marriage Void or Voidable?

Certain marriages are null and void as a matter of law.  You cannot marry your brother, your mother, your father, your aunt or your uncles.  In Arizona, first cousins may marry only if they are 65 years old or if they have documentary proof, approved by a judge, that at least one of them is unable to reproduce.  These prohibitions are all set out in a state statute:  Arizona Revised Statutes, Section 25-101.  In addition, there are other marriage prohibitions recognized by law.  It is illegal to enter into a bigamous marriage. A bigamous marriage occurs when one of the spouses is already married to another person.  Incestuous marriages and bigamous marriages are illegal right from the start.  That makes them null and void.

Other marriages are voidable rather than void.  Fraud may make a marriage voidable.  John is a convicted felon who has been in prison several times for bilking senior citizens out of their money. John pretends to be a retired businessman and joins the local country club to meet older widows.  When John meets Florence, a 60-year old widow with several million dollars, he charms and romances her.  Following a whirlwind courtship, they get married.  Before long, Florence discovers that John has absconded with most of her considerable savings.  She wants to end the marriage as expeditiously as possible before John takes any more of her assets.  Florence can probably make a very good case for having the marriage annulled based on John’s fraudulent intent in entering the union. There are other grounds that can make a marriage voidable.  Mental incompetence is one; the inability to consummate the marriage is another. 

Minors under the age of 18 cannot marry without the consent of a parent.  Yet, minors sometimes run away and marry without parental consent.  Those marriages are voidable while one of the parties is a minor.

Suppose a 19-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl run away and get married without parental permission.  They remain married for 4 years.  At that point the couple decides to end the marriage.  Can they get an annulment because wife was an underage bride without parental consent? The answer is no.  The couple will need to file for divorce.  The law presumes that because the wife remained in the marriage for an additional 3 years after becoming an adult, she ratified the marriage as a legal union. However, if the bride recognized her mistake and sought an annulment before she turned 18, the court would likely have voided the marriage by granting an annulment.

Legal Impact of Annulment.

When a marriage is legally annulled, it is as though the marriage never took place.  That means the court cannot award spousal maintenance, divide bank accounts or marital assets.  There is no right to the other spouse’s social security or retirement benefits.  Both parties are back in the same position as they were before the marriage took place.  If they bought property together, they will need to handle the sale in the same way unmarried property owners would divide a joint asset.  They have no community property interests.

For these reasons, a person considering annulment needs to weigh the options carefully.  Will an annulment deprive you of rights or property that you would be entitled to claim in a divorce?


Relevant Statutes