An annulment is the legal process by which a marriage is invalidated retroactively to the date of the inception of the marriage. Most states have statutes which set forth the grounds for annulment. In states which have not enacted such a statute, a court may, nevertheless, annul a marriage based upon its equitable powers.
EXAMPLE: Mental incapacity at the time of marriage is a grounds for annulment if the afflicted party was incapable of consent. If the mental incapacity occurs after the marriage ceremony, no annulment may be granted, but a divorce may be possible.
Differences Between Divorce and Annulment
- Predicated on a valid marriage.
- Terminates the marriage as of the date of the divorce decree.
- Grounds arise after the marriage.
- Alimony is generally granted in a divorce action.
- Predicated on an invalid marriage.
- Terminates a marriage retroactively to the date of inception.
- Grounds exist prior to the marriage, E.g., some impediment, such as incapacity.
- Unless state statutes provide otherwise, alimony is not granted after issuance of the annulment decree.
EXAMPLE: Alexander and Brittany are in Las Vegas for the long Thanksgiving weekend. On a whim (plus they both had too much to drink), they decide to get married. The next day they realize their mistake and file papers to have the marriage annulled. The marriage suffered from an impediment - capacity. The marriage will be considered terminated retroactively. In addition, generally, neither party would be entitled to alimony.
Generally, states will grant an annulment for the following reasons:
- Mental incapacity
Fraud involves something that goes to the “essentials of the marriage.” Specifically, courts ask whether the marriage would have taken place without the fraud or misrepresentation.
EXAMPLE: Gary marries Selena after knowing her for six weeks. Selena represents that she is chaste when in fact she is pregnant by another man. Upon learning of Selena’s condition, Gary files for an annulment. The court granted the annulment because Selena’s misrepresentation went to the essentials of the marriage. See, e.g.,
Reynolds v. Reynolds, 85 Mass. 605 (1862).
Other fraud-related grounds include: misrepresentations regarding fertility and religious beliefs. Conversely, misrepresentations concerning wealth, character or past life, may not be enough to invalidate a marriage.
EXAMPLE: Harvey and Ellen marry each other, having represented the desire to have children. Ellen refuses to have intercourse with Harvey unless there is use of contraceptive devices. Prior to their marriage, Ellen boasted about the fact she was eager to have children right away. The court will annul this marriage.
An annulment can also be based on duress. For duress, the duress must have been perceived by the complaining party at the time of the marriage and must have been sufficient to prevent a party from acting freely. Duress can be through threats or application of physical force, or by threat of arrest or prosecution, and invalidates consent to marriage.
Additionally, a marriage entered into on whim or in jest and a sham marriage are also grounds for an annulment.
As with other actions, there are defenses to annulment:
- Ratification: If a married couple continue to live together after one spouse learns of valid grounds for annulment; that may be considered ratification.
- Clean hands: Also known as “unclean hands.” This equitable defense is brought by the defendant and alleges that the plaintiff should not be allowed to bring the case forward if they don’t have “clean hands.” In other words, the plaintiff can’t have any wrongdoing in regards to the claim they are trying to bringing forward. The inequitable conduct or bad faith by the plaintiff may be a valid defense to the suit for annulment in some jurisdictions.
- Statute of limitations: Many states have a statute of limitations for each specific ground upon which an annulment may be sought. If the action is brought after the time period has expired it is an affirmative defense.
Lastly, a court may also settle the property rights of the parties and award alimony (temporary) in an annulment action. It is rarer to receive an award for permanent alimony, unless there is a statute that authorizes it. Or, a court can use its equity powers to award compensation to the injured spouse.