Divorce is the most common way to end the marriage relationship. However, states also recognize an alternative mechanism for canceling a marriage, referred to as an annulment. Annulments effectively return both parties to a position as if they were never married, thereby avoiding the need to resolve many of the major issues that need to be addressed in a divorce. This often results in a quicker and less costly option for qualifying couples.
Overview of Annulment
Because married couples have the option to divorce, states have attempted to restrict the availability of annulments to only those cases involving a specific legal defect in the marriage process. Although state laws can vary, typical grounds for annulment are if one party was unable to legally consent to the marriage due to being underage or being intoxicated, or if a spouse was already married at the time of marriage, resulting in an illegal bigamous relationship.
Divorces necessarily involve the division of property acquired during the marriage. The process operates according to state law, and can become highly contentious as most property is deemed jointly owned. However, there is no presumption of joint ownership in an annulment proceeding; divorce property division laws do not apply. Instead, the court will seek to restore the parties to their same positions prior to the marriage by attempting, as best possible, to return ownership of property to the spouse who acquired the asset. This often results in a faster resolution to property matters.
State law typically allows either spouse in a divorce to request spousal support, also known as alimony. The amount of the award is typically based on the needs of the receiving spouse and ability to pay of the other spouses. The decision can be case specific, requiring the court to perform an investigation and weigh several factors. By contrast, spousal support is generally not available to a couple pursuing an annulment. Like property division, skipping this step can also make the process move more smoothly and quicker than a divorce.
Some religions place high expectations on the marriage relationship, viewing it as a lifelong commitment. For practitioners of these faiths, there may be concern that a divorce would negatively affect their standing with the church. However, annulments are often viewed less harshly under church doctrine. Obtaining an annulment is sometimes the only way to have a subsequent marriage recognized by the religious community.