Divorce is not the only way a Florida marriage can be terminated (although it is certainly the most common). In certain cases, a marriage can be ended through a pronouncement of annulment. Although both a divorce and an annulment accomplish the same goal of dissolving the marriage, there are important differences between the two procedures in terms of how the parties are treated and how the marriage itself is viewed. An annulment can also affect the parties’ rights in terms of child custody, child support, and property division. Read on to learn about this less common – but still legal – method for terminating a marriage.
What Exactly is an Annulment?
Basically, an annulment is a declaration of the court that a particular marriage is void. A void marriage is one that was illegal at its outset and this illegality cannot be consented to or otherwise corrected. To put it another way, parties whose marriage is void and who obtain an annulment are determined by the court to have never been legally married in the first place. This is a marked difference from a divorce. At the conclusion of a divorce, the parties’ marriage is dissolved. However, the courts still regard the parties as having been legally married.
Some religious bodies grant annulments as well. For instance, the Catholic Church is able to declare a marriage annulled in order to permit the parties to remarry in the Catholic Church. The Jewish and Hindu faiths also have their own versions of an annulment procedure. While the term “annulment” is used in these religious contexts, it is important to remember that obtaining an annulment from your religious body does not affect how the State of Florida views your marriage in any way whatsoever. In other words, your marriage can be declared annulled by your religious group and you can still be considered legally married by the State.
Why Would I Want an Annulment?
Annulments are preferred by some for several reasons. Individuals who are active in a faith community may wish to avoid the stigma that may result from going through the divorce process. In other words, in certain religions or faith bodies divorce may be frowned upon and individuals who obtain a divorce may find themselves ostracized from their faith community. For these individuals, an annulment is seen as a viable alternative to pursuing a divorce.
Individuals who feel seriously “wronged” in some manner by the other party may also seek an annulment. As will be explored more in depth below, the grounds for granting an annulment are limited and usually require there to be some fraudulent or deceptive behavior by one of the parties or something seriously wrong with the circumstances surrounding the marriage. Some may feel that an annulment vindicates them in some manner or is a legal acknowledgement that their marriage was seriously flawed.
When Can I Seek an Annulment?
Where parties seek a divorce, they do not need any other reason for doing so other than alleging that they are “incompatible” or have “irreconcilable differences.” Florida courts (like other states’ courts) do not require the parties to have a reason or cause to be granted a divorce other than the parties’ desire to no longer be married. This is not the case for annulments. In fact, annulments are only available in certain limited circumstances, and the party looking for an annulment is responsible for producing evidence that convinces a court that an annulment is warranted.
Some of the more common circumstances under which annulments are granted include:
- Fraudulent marriages: These occur where the parties are both able and capable of entering into a legally binding marriage but one marries the other as a means of committing some fraud or obtaining some benefit that he or she would otherwise not be entitled to. In other words, one of the parties is not marrying the other as a means of expressing a commitment to the other. This most often appears in situations in which one person marries another with the goal of bettering his or her immigration status or to obtain government benefits. Fraudulent marriages tend to fail very quickly after they are entered into. A fraudulent marriage usually requires evidence that one spouse perpetrated a fraud upon or somehow deceived the other spouse. For example, suppose that Ron and Nikita agree to marry to assist Nikita in obtaining a legal immigration status. In return, Nikita agrees to pay Ron a certain sum of money. After they are married and Nikita obtains her desired immigration status, Ron applies for an annulment. Because both of the parties were in on the plan, Ron may find it difficult – if not impossible – to obtain an annulment based on grounds of fraud.
- Failure to consummate the marriage: A marriage in which the parties fail to consummate their union can be grounds for annulment in certain circumstances. Typically, though, there must have been a failure to consummate the marriage for several years before a court will even entertain a petition for annulment. By itself, a failure to consummate the marriage is often a weak ground for seeking an annulment but can be evidence of a fraudulent marriage. For example, if Ron claims he was defrauded by Nikita and produces evidence that Nikita refused to consummate the marriage with him for the entire time she was seeking her desired immigration status, this may support his claim that he was the victim of fraud.
- Illegality of the marriage: Not everyone is able to be legally married. Generally, potential spouses must be of legal age (over 18 years old), not related to one another within a certain degree, and be of sound mind in order to enter into a marriage. If facts later show that one or both spouses did not meet these requirements, an annulment may be sought. For instance, if Ron and/or Nikita are found to be 15 years old as opposed to 18 years old, their marriage would likely be annulled. The same result would occur if it was discovered that Ron and/or Nikita suffered from a severe mental illness and did not have the legal capacity to enter into the marriage. Likewise, if Ron and/or Nikita were legally married to someone else when they attempted to marry, an annulment will be granted. Finally, if Ron and Nikita are brother and sister or first cousins, their marriage will likely be annulled.
- Duress: It is rare to seek an annulment based on grounds of duress, and it is even more rare for an annulment to be granted on these grounds. “Duress” refers to some extreme and overbearing pressure that essentially forces someone into the marriage against his or her will. The traditional image of a “shotgun wedding” in which the father of the bride stands behind the “groom” pointing a gun at him while the wedding occurs illustrates a situation of duress. Because these sorts of situations do not typically occur, Florida courts do not grant many annulments on these grounds.
- Concealment of a material fact: If one party conceals a serious fact from the other, an annulment may be granted. Concealing any fact is not sufficient; rather, the fact must be of such a serious and material nature that the party from whom the fact was concealed would not have entered into the marriage if he or she had been aware of the fact. Furthermore, the fact must typically go to the heart of the marriage. Suppose that Nikita conceals the fact that she is not a natural blonde; while Ron may claim that he would not have married Nikita had he known this, this type of fact is not likely to be seen as so serious or material as to warrant an annulment. But an annulment is much more likely if Ron conceals the fact that he is unable to produce offspring from Nikita and Nikita desired to have children. Likewise, if Nikita conceals from Paul the fact that she has a sexually transmitted disease, an annulment is more likely to be granted.
What is the Procedure for Getting an Annulment?
While the procedure for getting a Florida divorce is very detailed and specified in the Florida statutes, the procedure for getting an annulment is more vague. The process begins by filing a petition for annulment with the appropriate court. The petition will have to allege the grounds which entitle the person to an annulment. If the court finds there is sufficient evidence supporting the petition, an annulment will be entered. If the court fails to find enough evidence justifying an annulment, the petition for annulment will be denied.
How are Property Division, Child Custody, and Child Support Treated in an Annulment?
Like in a divorce, a court entering an annulment can enter contemporary orders regarding property division and child custody. (Because an obligation to support a child extends to the parents of a child regardless of their marital status, a court can also enter binding child support orders against the parties/parents.) In a Florida divorce as well as in an annulment, courts will typically seek a “fair and equitable” way to divide the assets the parties accumulated together. In an annulment, however, there are no presumptions as to certain property being marital property since the two parties were never legally married.
Similar to a divorce, a court can also enter a parenting plan and visitation schedule. A court in either situation will be guided by the best interests of the child in determining where and with whom the child will primarily reside as well as how often the other parent will have visitation rights with the child. After such an initial determination is made, both parties are free to ask the court to enter new orders if some change has occurred justifying a modification.
What Else Do I Need to Know About an Annulment?
Annulments tend to be more complex and less certain than divorces. Because of this, annulments tend to be more costly and time-consuming than a simple divorce. A person seeking an annulment generally needs to obtain the services and advice of an experienced Florida family lawyer in order to seek an annulment. Even with the help of an attorney, however, an annulment is not a certain result. Whether a court grants an annulment depends almost entirely on how persuaded the court is that circumstances justifying an annulment exist. An attorney can help a person seeking an annulment evaluate their situation and, if appropriate, locate witnesses and evidence that will support the petition for annulment.
An annulment is not a common way by which a Florida marriage is terminated, but in certain circumstances it may be available. An annulment, if granted, has the effect of the courts declaring that no valid marriage existed between the parties. Some may seek annulments because of some religious or personal aversion to being “divorced”; others may feel an annulment is appropriate because they feel wronged by the other party.
An annulment is not available in all situations. Typically there must be fraudulent behavior by one of the parties or serious circumstances before a court will consider an annulment. A fraudulent marriage or a marriage involving at least one party who was not legally eligible to be married can support a petition for annulment, as can the fact that one party concealed a serious and material fact from the other. Other, less-common grounds for annulment include a prolonged lack of consummation of the marriage and where one person was forced into the marriage by the other party against his or her will.
When seeking an annulment, the assistance of legal counsel can greatly improve the odds of success. Be prepared for the process to be time-consuming and expensive, however. Before a court will grant an annulment, the court will need to be satisfied that the circumstances surrounding the “marriage” are such that an annulment is a just and appropriate action to take in order to terminate the marriage.