An annulment is a declaration that the marriage is a nullity, which means that it never existed. This occurs when the marriage is either void or voidable. A void marriage is one the state never legally recognized. A voidable marriage is one that suffers from a technical defect, but is valid until a court is asked to declare it a nullity. If that occurs, the marriage is treated as though it never existed.
The laws of each state set the limited grounds upon which a person may seek a court judgment declaring a void or voidable marriage to be a nullity. Judges must stick to the letter of the law when deciding whether there is a basis to annul a marriage. For example, fraud is a ground for finding a marriage to be voidable, but only if the subject of the fraudulent misrepresentation goes to the heart of the marital relationship. Lying to your partner who wants to have a family about your inability to have children could be the basis for an annulment, but exaggerations about your wealth would not.
Although laws vary among states, there are some commonly recognized grounds for declaring a marriage to be a nullity, including if a party to the marriage was legally underage; committed fraud to trick someone into marriage; lacked mental capacity to agree to the marriage; was physically unable to consummate the marriage, or inflicted force or duress on someone to agree to the marriage. Although these might seem like a wide variety of reasons for annulment, each of these grounds for annulling a marriage raises doubt about the consensual and voluntary nature of a person’s decision to enter into the marriage. Typically, however, unless a court intervenes, the marriage is valid.
Unlike the voidable marriage, a void marriage is a nullity from the date of inception. The state will not condone it. The court decree declaring it a nullity as a void marriage is merely a formality. Even if the parties choose to do nothing about it, the state still considers the marriage to have never existed. The two situations recognized in all states as voiding a marriage are bigamy and incest. Incest is a marriage prohibited by law based on the familial relationship of the parties. Bigamy arises when one of the parties to a marriage has a living spouse from a previous marriage that has not ended in a divorce or annulment.
Because the defects in a voidable marriage can be cured either by the parties or by the passage of time, states set time limits for bringing an action to annul a voidable marriage. For example, an action in Minnesota to declare a voidable marriage a nullity based on minority, or under the age of consent, must be brought while the person is still a minor, or it cannot be brought at all. Void marriages are treated quite differently. States do not impose any time limitation on a person’s right to bring an action to declare a void marriage a nullity. States treat a void marriage as a nullity from the date of inception, with or without the benefit of a judicial decree.