What is an Annulment?

There is a lot of misinformation out there about annulments, divorce and the sacraments. Some of you may have read or heard about Sheila Kennedy’s book about her struggle to prevent her marriage from being annulled. Perhaps you heard about someone married for years who received an annulment and wondered how this was possible? How can the Church say that no marriage took place?

First, what does the Catholic Church teach about marriage:
"Marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, which is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."

Jesus Christ taught us that true marriage is indissoluble. This comes from the Gospels as in Matthew 19:1-12. Therefore, the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce or second marriages.

Before we get into annulments, let me answer some questions about divorce:

So, then, what is an annulment?

Well…first, the exact term is a declaration of nullity.

A declaration of nullity within the Catholic Church is a decision that a given marriage lacked from the beginning one of the essential elements of marriage and was therefore not a sacramental marriage. It is a judgment that one or both of the parties did not give proper consent to marriage. This judgment is reached through a full and careful inquiry into the history of the individuals and the marriage. A marriage is presumed to be valid unless proven otherwise.

A declaration of nullity within the Catholic Church has no effect whatsoever in civil law. It does not affect in any manner the legitimacy of children.

Before I answer some common questions about annulments, let me describe the three forms in which a marriage can be nullified:

Questions about Annulments

  1. How do I start the procedure?
    A Catholic who wishes to clarify his/her status before the Church should first approach their parish priest or deacon to find out the particulars of diocesan policy. In most cases, the person is asked to write a resume of their background, their courtship, their difficulties in the marriage, the cause or causes, in their judgment, for the separation, the divorce and their life after divorce. This is sent to the Marriage Tribunal along with certified copies of marriage license, divorce decree, baptismal information and other papers.
  2. Does my former spouse have to cooperate?
    No, but because the annulment procedure affects him/her, your former spouse must be informed of the procedure and is given the opportunity to tell his/her side.
  3. How are the allegations proved?
    Primarily, the testimony of at least three witnesses, counselors or other parties is needed to substantiate the allegations of the petitioner.
  4. Can anyone be a witness?
    Two criteria should be used--they should be knowledgeable of the marriage and the personalities of the parties, or of the difficulties in the marriage. They should also be objective witnesses (if possible).
  5. Does everyone who applies get an annulment?
    No, but the majority of those who have their petitions accepted by the Tribunal do get annulments. Some petitions for the formal process are denied, however, but always for stated serious reasons.
  6. Why would an annulment not be granted?
    There are times, of course, when a person doesn't seem to have provable grounds for nullity as understood by the Church today. The more usual reason for denying an annulment is the situation wherein the allegations cannot be proven, usually because witnesses are either unavailable or insufficiently informed.
  7. My former spouse was baptized a Catholic but never had anything to do with the Church/practice of Catholicism. Would that lack of faith be considered grounds for the nullity of our supposedly sacramental marriage?
    At the present time, no. Some theologians and canonists have suggested that such a lack of belief destroys any complete, sacramental marriage. The identification of marriage between baptized persons (Catholic or not) and the sacrament of marriage in Catholic law was formulated in the last century but is traditional.
  8. Are there any civil effects of the annulment?
    No, a Church annulment in this country is solely for the spiritual well-being of the parties. Annulments have no effect on any decisions of civil courts, the status of the parties (or their children) in civil law..
  9. How does an annulment affect my children? Does it make them illegitimate?
    An annulment has no effect on the status of children in the Church. Obviously, the children exist as a gift of God. Legitimacy is a legal category; civil and canon law can make laws that affect the legitimacy of children, and canon law states explicitly that children born of a marriage that is later declared to be null are legitimate. The annulment is based on the fact that a sacramental marriage did not exist.
  10. If I get an annulment does that meant that my former spouse can remarry?
    An annulment does not mean that either of you can automatically remarry in the Church. The Church would want to be certain that the invalidating factor is no longer present. When this occurs, then both parties are free to remarry in the Church.
  11. What does an annulment say about my past life--was I living in sin when I thought I was married?
    An annulment says that a previous marriage did not fulfill all the requirements for a valid marriage in ecclesiastical law. It does not say that the relationship was good for nothing; it might have been a good one for some time, and we are all affected by the people we meet and know. There is no way one can commit sin if she/he is unaware of the invalidity of the marriage. A sacramental marriage presupposes that each partner is able to commit him or herself at the time of the wedding and therefore make that commitment at the time of the vows, to encourage a "community of life and love" with each other. An annulment process does not determine the guilt of either partner. This is simply a non-adversarial procedure in which the final judgment is only based on a fact question: Was this a sacramental union, or wasn't it? It's a question of fact, not a question of guilt.

- Deacon George Kozak

Return to Questions Main Page