The Basics of an Annulment
An annulment is an specific legal process to terminate a marriage. Of course, so is a divorce. The difference, however, is that when you obtain an annulment, your marriage isn’t just over—legally, it never existed. Needless to say, you'll have to show compelling reasons before a judge will reach such a dire conclusion.
If you qualify for an annulment, it means the circumstances of your marriage made your relationship “void” or “voidable.” A void marriage is automatically invalid because it’s based on an illegal act. Examples are bigamy (one of you was already married at the time) and incest (you married a close blood relative).
A voidable marriage is one where grounds (legal reasons) for an annulment may exist, but those grounds won’t automatically invalidate the marriage. In order to get the annulment, one of the spouses has to request it from the court. Some of the scenarios that could make a marriage voidable are:
- One of the spouses was permanently impotent when the marriage occurred, and the other spouse wasn’t aware of the condition.
- A spouse hadn’t reached the legal age to marry in the state where the marriage took place.
- One of the spouses took part in the marriage while under duress, such as a threat of violence.
- Either of the spouses wasn’t mentally competent to consent to the marriage, for reasons such as a severe mental impairment, or perhaps being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- One of the spouses was guilty of defrauding the other, like failing to divulge drug addiction prior to the marriage.
Grounds for an annulment may vary from state to state, so you’d have to check your state’s laws to see if your situation qualifies.
How Will an Annulment Affect Finances
The term “finances” doesn’t just refer to your bank accounts—it can encompass:
- an income stream, particularly alimony (also referred to as spousal support)
- real estate
- pensions and 401(k)
- personal property, and
- debts, including loans, mortgages, and credit cards.
Annulment and Support
In family law cases, support usually falls into two categories: child support and spousal support (alimony). This applies to annulment proceedings, as well.
Protecting children is a priority for courts, and ensuring adequate financial support for a child falls under that umbrella. Courts in every state have the authority to address child support, whether the parents are married, single, or divorced. Parents are always responsible for their children, regardless of their marital status. In light of this, if a court has annulled a marriage with children, it will still order child support and will apply the state’s child support guidelines to determine the proper amount and how to apportion that figure between the parents.
As to alimony, you might wonder why that subject should arise in an annulment. After all, if the marriage technically never existed, the couple were never really spouses. Thus, spousal support shouldn’t be an issue the court needs to address.
In some states, like California, that’s the position the law takes—alimony isn’t permitted. Other states, like New Jersey and Delaware, disagree, and allow their courts to award alimony in annulment actions. Be mindful, however, that the fact it’s allowed doesn’t obligate courts in those states to award it. It just means they can, if they deem it appropriate.
See How Much Spousal Support Will I Get in My Divorce? for more information on how courts determine alimony.
Annulment and Property
Because an annulment invalidates the marriage, when it come dividing property, the law tries to put the couple in the same position they were when the marriage occurred. Generally speaking, if you brought property into the marriage, that property remains yours when the annulment concludes. In many cases, this works out fine, because most annulments occur shortly after the marriage takes place.
But if the couple was together for a while, odds are they accumulated property during that time. As with alimony, states differ on how to handle this situation. For example, Delaware authorizes its courts to decide the best way to divide property the couple acquired together. New Jersey and California do not. If you live in a state that doesn't permit their family courts to address this issue in an annulment proceeding, you’d likely have to file a claim in civil court.
Annulment and Debts
Distribution of property usually encompasses distribution of debt, as well. There’s a distinction between debts brought into the relationship and debts incurred during the couple’s time together.
Normally, debts from prior to the marriage remain the obligation of the spouse who incurred them, while both spouses are equally responsible for any debts incurred during the marriage. However, there are some circumstances where debts racked up during the marriage will be assigned to only one spouse. For example, if one spouse secretly spends marital funds or uses a joint credit card on trips for an adulterous affair (or gifts for a lover), judges in many states would assign that debt to the cheating spouse or order reimbursement to the innocent spouse.
If your state permits its family courts to deal with property division in an annulment, the judge should be able to decide any debt issues. If it doesn’t, then a civil court judge may have to resolve the matter.
The financial aspects of an annulment can be complex. Be sure to consult with an experienced divorce attorney in your area to learn your rights and obligations.