Difference Between a Marriage Annulment & a Divorce in California

by Beverly Bird

Annulment has a reputation for being a quick and easy way to end your marriage if you wake up the next morning realizing that you made a big mistake. In reality, annulment in California has nothing to do with how long you were married. It has to do with whether certain criteria were in place to make your marriage a legal union. If the answer is no, you were never technically married in the first place and you can get an annulment. If the answer is yes, you must file for divorce instead.

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Grounds for Annulment

In California, some grounds for annulment automatically void your marriage, while others make the marriage potentially voidable – a fine legal distinction. If you and your spouse are blood relatives or either of you was already married at the time you wed, your marriage is void, because it was never legal to begin with. Voidable marriages include such situations as your spouse forcing you to marry him by threatening you in some way; your spouse tricking you into marrying him by lying about something fundamental to your union; or your spouse being unable to consummate the marriage -- and you didn't find out until after the wedding. A voidable marriage is legal until the court issues an order declaring otherwise.

Annulment vs. Divorce

If your marriage was voidable rather than void from its inception, you have the option of divorcing instead annulling it, and several statutory considerations come into play when you're deciding which option to choose. When the court annuls your marriage, it has the effect of stating that the marriage never existed. Therefore, you'll lose out on certain rights regarding marital property if you were married long enough to acquire any. California is a community property state, so marital property is divided 50/50 in a divorce. But community property law doesn't apply if you were never married in the first place. Likewise, if you and your spouse conceived during the marriage, your child can't be born to a marriage that never existed. Therefore, you'd have to take extra legal steps to establish paternity before the court could address issues of child support or custody.

Choosing Divorce

The divorce process is typically much easier than annulment. Filing for annulment means proving your grounds in court, and California is somewhat strict about this. By contrast, California is a no-fault state, so you don't have to prove anything to get a divorce. You can simply tell the court that your marriage is over because you and your spouse have irreconcilable differences.

Statute of Limitations

You don't have all the time in the world to annul your marriage, at least not if you live in California. The state has some statutes of limitations for annulments, particularly with respect to voidable marriages. You typically have four years from the date of your marriage if you're alleging that your spouse forced you into the union or is impotent. If he deceived you into marrying him, you have four years from the date you discovered his lie.