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Annulment Compared to Divorce

Annulment Compared to Divorce

Many people have heard of an annulment, but think of it as just a quickie divorce.  An annulment is much different than a divorce, though.  A divorce is the termination of a valid marriage, and in order to terminate a marriage a court must divide up all the assets a couple might own.  Divorce no longer requires specific grounds, instead the parties just decide to split up.  An annulment is very different.  It basically erases a marriage so that it is like the couple was never married in the first place.  Child custody can sometimes be addressed in a divorce, but it usually is not.  

Annulments are rare today.  They are largely a relic of a bygone era when divorce was frowned upon.  Many people seeking annulments in modern times are trying to avoid the complexity of a divorce.  These are often wealthy people who feel that it would be wrong to divide their assets over a marriage that they regret.  Some people also still want to avoid the stigma of divorce.  The TV show Friends captured this struggle when off-again, on-again lovers Rachel and Ross tried to get an annulment for a drunken marriage in Las Vegas.  Ross wanted to avoid the shame of his third divorce, but it turned out they were unable to get the marriage annulled.  In real life, annulment still requires specific grounds.

1. Lack of Understanding

This is one of the more common grounds for an agreed-upon annulment.  It means that the two parties had such a complete misunderstanding of each other that they could not really have agreed to a valid marriage.  For example, singer Britney Spears married a high-school friend after a night out in Las Vegas and she had it annulled three days later for lack of understanding.  Her petition said they were not on the same page about having children or where they would live.  Her one-time husband said they just agreed to annul.  She got her annulment, but not every court will be as forgiving as the ones in Vegas.

2. Lack of Capacity or Consent

You cannot truly enter into a marriage if you are intoxicated, under duress, or suffering from severe mental illness. These types of annulments tend to be used for drunken nuptials or elderly individuals that unexpectedly decide to get married.  You cannot consent if you are underage, either.  Singer Aallyah had her marriage annulled from fellow singer R. Kelly because she was just 15 years old at the time she signed her paperwork.  Both parties be must generally be 18 to get married, though sometimes younger people can get married with parental approval.

3. Fraud

Fraud is a legalistic term here, and does not necessarily have its common-sense meaning.  In many states, the parties can simply allege fraud without explaining, much like “irreconcilable differences” are often cited in divorce.  As one example, actress Renee Zellweger alleged fraud to get her marriage with singer Kenny Chesney annulled.  That has given rise to rumors that Mr. Chesney is gay, but the two say they just picked fraud as the easiest of the available annulment grounds to use.  Other common fraud claims include infidelity (actress Ali Mario used this one after Mario Lopez cheated on his bachelor party), lying about being pregnant, and hiding homosexuality.  

4. Consanguinity (Incest)

Marriages are not allowed between close relatives.  How close is too close varies from state to state.  Most states prevent siblings and first cousins from marrying, but some states go further out into the family tree.  

5. Bigamy   

No states allow more than one spouse.  Usually, when an individual get remarried before the first marriage is dissolved then the second marriage will be void.

6. Impotency or Inability to Consummate

This was a common ground for annulment in the past, when couples were expected not to have sex before marriage.  If a woman found her husband to be impotent, she could never have children and that was grounds to void the marriage.  This still exists in some states.


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