An annulment is a legal procedure that dissolves a couple’s marriage, though it differs from a divorce in that it restores the couple’s status to how it was before the marriage occurred, as though it had never taken place. For some people, divorce is not allowed by their religion, or carries a stigma. Additionally, some people find it easier to remarry within their church if their previous marriage has been annulled, rather than having been divorced. To explore this concept, consider the following annulment definition.

Definition of Annulment


  1. A legal declaration that ends a marriage as though it never happened


Late 15th century           Middle French annulement

Types of Annulment

There are two primary types of annulment: civil and religious. A civil annulment dissolves a marriage legally, and is done through a state government after a court orders it. A religious annulment is granted through a church and simply dissolves the marriage in the eyes of the church, often taking place after a couple has been divorced through the legal system.

Civil Annulment

When a couple seeks a civil annulment, they must file the proper paperwork with the local court, asking the judge to grant an annulment. Civil annulments are typically available if the marriage had a very short duration, and if certain important factors are missing from the marriage. Other factors make an annulment impossible, requiring the couple to seek a traditional divorce. These include:

  • If children are involved in the marriage, making custody, visitation, and child support a concern
  • If there are community assets to divide
  • If there are community debts to divide

Grounds for Civil Annulment

Each state has specific laws concerning when an annulment may be granted. While the court considers a number of issues, valid grounds for annulment commonly include:

  • Fraud or Misrepresentation – refers to a situation in which one spouse lied to the other about something that was essential to the marriage, such as the ability to have children, or any other issue that could negatively affect the relationship immediately or in the future.
  • Failure to Consummate – refers to the physical inability of one spouse to perform sexually, which was now known by the other spouse prior to the marriage.
  • Incest – refers to a marriage between two people who are too closely related by blood, making the marriage illegal by state law.
  • Bigamy – refers to a situation in which one spouse was still legally married to another person at the time of the marriage.
  • Underage with No Parental Consent – refers to a situation in which one spouse was under the age of 18 at the time of the marriage, and had not obtained parental consent.
  • Unsound Mind – refers to a situation in which one or both parties were impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time of the marriage, as they did not have the mental capacity to give consent.
  • Force or Duress – refers to the fact that marriage is a consensual relationship, and consent may not be given when compelled under threat of violence. In most states, actual threats of violence are required to prove duress.

Religious Annulment

While annulment under the grounds described above is available to any couple, many churches and religious institutions allow couples to obtain an annulment after being granted a civil divorce. Such a religious annulment cancels out the marriage in the eyes of the church, making it possible for the parties to remarry at some time in the future. Criteria for a religious annulment vary by institution, and such an annulment may only be granted by the church authority.

Annulment vs. Divorce

Both annulment and divorce end a marriage, but there is a big difference between the two:

  • Divorce is a matter of civil law, and says the couple was married once, but now is not.
  • Annulment is a matter of religious law, and says the couple was never truly married in the first place, that something necessary for a valid marriage was missing.

Obtaining an annulment may allow the individuals involved to avoid the social and religious stigma of divorce. An annulment is often a less complicated process, as there are no children or assets to consider. Understanding whether a couple should seek an annulment or divorce depends on their specific circumstances, and the grounds for each in their state.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
  • Consent – To approve, permit, or agree.
  • Duress – Threats, intimidation, or bullying intended to force someone to do something.
  • Domestic Partner – An individual who lives in the same residence with a sexual partner, without a legalized union or marriage.