Annulment vs. Divorce

Written by christine lebednik
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Annulment and divorce are different processes. Further, there is more than one type of annulment. While divorce is always a civil legal process, not a religious one, processes exist for annulment both through civil legal proceedings as well as one officiated by a religious authority.

Annulment as Administered by the Catholic Church

Roman Catholics and non-Catholics can seek annulment from the Catholic Church. Most often, non-Catholics do so because of desire to enter into a valid Catholic marriage with a Catholic. Catholicism denies marriage when either partner is party to what the church views as an existing union.

Instances have certainly been known of the church not recognising as valid marriage unions established by civil authority. The Catholic Church does, however, recognise any marriage made through the religious authority as valid, including not only other Christian denominations, but marriages performed by Jewish rabbis and other religious clergy as well and also sometimes civilly conducted marriages.

The requisite condition for the granting of an annulment through the Catholic process is establishment of grounds upon which it can be determined that at the time of entering into the marriage union either or both of the parties did not have full understanding of the nature of marriage. Generally, this involves such matters as psychological unfitness for marriage unrecognized at the time of the union, misrepresentations of such things as intent or lack thereof to produce offspring, and entering into the current union while party to a prior, valid marriage in the eyes of the church.

Outcome of a Successful Annulment Using the Catholic Process

The outcome of a successful annulment process is a declaration by the church that the marriage was never valid.

A key factor is that an established civil divorce is a prerequisite to annulment proceedings of this type. One possible exception would be the instance of a long-missing and presumed legally deceased spouse, such as someone in the armed forces who in wartime becomes missing in action for an extended interval of time; otherwise a divorce decree must first exist.

Civil Annulments

Civil annulments, like those administered by the Catholic Church, result in a declaration that the marriage never existed because of conditions at the outset. The finding in a civil annulment of an invalid marriage is on civil grounds rather than religious ones, although most if not all of the circumstances so defined would certainly qualify as reasons in the Catholic Church’s annulment process as well.

Some of the reasons for civil annulment include bigamy, incest, fraud, insanity, incompetence and mental disability.

Reason to Choose Civil Annulments

The primary reason to choose civil annulment versus divorce is that the proceedings tend to be somewhat less messy than divorce proceedings often become.


Divorce, like civil annulment, is a civil and legal proceeding rather than a religious one.

Unlike annulments, the outcome of a divorce decree is not a declaration that the marriage had no initial validity.

Rather, a divorce decree presumes a marriage to have been valid and then to have failed. The granting of a divorce decree is a legal dissolving of the marriage contract.

While the legal process might grant divorce for a wide array of causes, among the most common reasons for marriages to result in divorce are financial problems, poor communication between spouses and infidelity.

Annulment vs. Divorce: Procedural Matters

A key distinction between both kinds of annulment and divorce is that while generally neither type of annulment concerns itself with such legal outcomes of the process as child custody, property division and alimony considerations, in most instances the divorce proceedings will address one or more of these matters. A small number of civil annulments will invalidate longer-standing marriages, and in these instances property and alimony issues might get consideration.

Generally, one would seek both divorce and civil annulment though a similar series of legal proceedings, in most instances initiating the process by consultation with an attorney.

For Catholic annulments, the petitioner initiates the process by approaching the parish (or the intended spouse's parish in such cases as a non-Catholic wanting to marry a Catholic). The parish starts the process and elevates the matter to the Tribunal, or Church Court.

Number of Annulments vs. Number of Divorces Annually

Annually, about 1,135,000 divorces per year are granted in the United States. For Catholic annulments, the worldwide number of annulments granted rose to approximately 50,000 per year by the 1980s with by far the most occurring in the United States. Those numbers have remained fairly consistent thereafter. No statistics on the number of civil annulments is available as of September 2009.

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