Legal vs. Religious Annulments

Given the fact that “shotgun” weddings are available for any pair of star-struck lovers wandering through the streets of Las Vegas, one might assume that a divorce is just as quick and easy to obtain.

Unfortunately, such is not the case. Many states, including North Carolina, require spouses going their separate ways to live separately from one another for one (1) year before they are eligible to file for divorce.

Given this burdensome timeline, some shotgun spouses are hopeful that they can opt for an annulment instead of having to live separately for longer than the relationship even lasted in order to move on with their lives. Many people mistakenly think that because they either were only married for a short time or never consummated the marriage, they can qualify for annulment.

After all, the list of celebrities over the years who have “undone” hasty marriages seems a mile long. If Britney Spears can do it, why not you? The answer lies in the fact that there are only very limited circumstances in which a person can successfully receive an annulment.

Divorce vs. Annulment

A civil divorce means that in the eyes of the law and government, a marriage has ended. The legal results of a divorce mean dividing up your shared property and income (called equitable distribution), as well as child support and custody obligations for any children from the marriage. Meanwhile, a legal annulment is a judicial declaration that a marriage never existed in the first place because of some legal defect. A religious annulment is similar in that it proclaims that a valid marriage never existed within the eyes of the Church. However, the grounds on which you can ask for an annulment differ between legal and religious annulments, as do their legal impact.

Legal Annulment

To re-emphasize, there are two different “types” of annulment, one legal and one religious.

A legal annulment is a court order that declares that due to some legal defect, a marriage never existed in the first place. It essentially voids the relationship as if it never happened under the eyes of the law. However, a legal annulment will only be granted under very limited circumstances in North Carolina. Circumstances under which a couple can obtain a legal annulment here include if:

  1. The marriage was between two people more closely related than first cousins, or between double first cousins.
    1. For those without a degree in genealogy, double first cousins occur when two siblings have children with another set of siblings. The children from those unions would be related to each other through each other’s parents’ families.
  2. At least one of the parties is younger than 16 years of age. There is an exception to this allows minors over the age of 14 to marry their child’s other parent if the court gives its consent.
  3. At least one of the parties was already legally married to someone else who is still alive. Being married to multiple people at the same time is referred to as “bigamy,” and it is actually a crime in North Carolina.
  4. At least one of the parties was physically impotent at the time the marriage occurred. Impotence means it is impossible for that person to have sexual intercourse, whether due to a physical, psychological, or some other medical condition. It does not refer to an individual’s sterility or inability to bear children. Impotence also does not refer to a spouse’s avoidance of, or refusal to, have intercourse. A medical doctor’s diagnosis of impotency is usually required if this ground for annulment is used.
  5. At least one of the parties lacked the mental capacity to understand the impact of what they were doing at the time of the marriage. This ground can apply to individuals who marry under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol to the extent that they did not understand the long-term implications of a marital contract.
  6. The marriage was performed under the representation that one of the parties was pregnant, but the couple separates within 45 days of their marriage and no child is born within the 10 months following the separation. Many states allow annulment on a much greater number of fraud-related grounds, but in North Carolina this is the only fraudulent ground available for an annulment.

If your marriage does not fit into one of North Carolina’s narrow exceptions, you will not qualify for a legal annulment.

Unlike with divorce, if a marriage has been legally annulled, neither “spouse” is eligible for permanent alimony or equitable distribution of property.

Religious Annulment

In contrast, a religious annulment will not have any legal impact whatsoever on your life or relationship. It simply means that the Church has recognized that a valid marriage never existed under the laws of the Church. (Although some other religious institutions provide annulments, the Catholic Church is by far the most commonly used, so for simplicity’s sake we will describe Catholic annulments here.) The Catholic Church’s prerequisites for a valid marriage include:

  1. That both spouses, as of the time of the marriage, were free to marry, i.e. not married to someone else, or remarried without an annulment;
  2. That both spouses were capable of giving, and freely exchanged, consent to marry;
  3. That both spouses had the intent to marry and be faithful for life, and were open to having children together;
  4. That each spouse gave consent to marry in the presence of an authorized Church minister and two (2) witnesses.

Again, a religious annulment will not have any legal impact on your relationship status; some people opt for the religious annulment to have a fresh start in the eyes of their Church, and to be eligible to later remarry within the Church if they so wish.

If you are facing an annulment or divorce, it is important to speak with an experienced family law attorney to represent your interests and guide you throughout the process. The family law attorneys at Arnold & Smith PLLC are dedicated to the aggressive representation of our clients throughout the Charlotte, North Carolina area in a wide variety of family law matters, from prenuptial agreements and adoption to separation agreements and divorce. Contact us today for a consultation with one of our family law attorneys.