Annulment vs. Divorce

This Week’s Blog by Andrew M. Eliot

  • Annulment is a frequently misunderstood legal concept. In contrast to a divorce, which ends a valid marriage, an annulment is a decree declaring that a valid marriage never existed
  • Similar to most jurisdictions, annulments are available in Connecticut only in certain limited circumstances, and are exceedingly rare
  • A legal (or civil) annulment is different from, and should not be confused with, a religious annulment. A legal annulment is granted by a court, whereas a religious annulment is granted by a religious institution and has no legal impact on marital status in the eyes of the state of Connecticut

As matrimonial attorneys practicing in towns such as Greenwich and Darien well know, annulment is a frequently misunderstood legal concept. The legal distinction between a divorce and an annulment is as follows: whereas a divorce ends a valid, existing marriage, an annulment is a decree declaring that no valid marriage ever occurred in the first place.

In order to qualify for an annulment in Connecticut, a party must be able to prove one of a series of available grounds (i.e., reasons) for an annulment. Notably, the various grounds for annulment (set forth below) fall into one of two distinct categories: (1) those which render the purported marriage null and void from the outset; and (2) those which render the purported marriage merely “voidable,” meaning that the marriage is viewed as valid unless and until one of the parties actively seeks to have it set aside in an annulment proceeding.

The following grounds for annulment render a purported marriage “void”:

  • Consanguinity – The spouses are related by blood, or have “affinity,” (meaning a close family relationship).  Specifically, no person can marry a parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, sibling, parent’s sibling, sibling’s child, stepparent, or stepchild;
  • Bigamy – One spouse is already legally married to someone else at the time of the second marriage.

The following grounds for annulment render a purported marriage “voidable”:

  • One spouse was mentally incompetent at the time of the marriage ceremony;
  • A person who is not legally authorized to perform a wedding performed the marriage ceremony;
  • One or both spouses consented to the marriage only because of force, fraud, or duress from another person;
  • One spouse suffers from a health problem or physical condition that goes to the essence of the marriage (i.e., a husband conceals a medical problem with impotence that prevents the couple from having sexual relations).

Notably, there are several common misconceptions about annulment. For example, simply being married to someone for a very short period of time does not qualify a person or a couple for annulment, as many people assume.  Moreover, contrary to what many people believe, even where annulment is available as an option, it is not typically a quicker and less expensive process than a divorce. In fact, an annulment proceeding is a fairly complex process that can easily take the same amount of time, effort, and resources as a divorce might.  One reason for this is that in annulment proceeding, a plaintiff must prove the grounds for the annulment by “clear and convincing evidence,” (a high legal standard of proof).  This is in stark contrast to a divorce, where a plaintiff does not need to prove any grounds for a divorce at all, but instead merely needs to allege that the marriage has “broken down irretrievably.”  Finally, and this is a common misconception somewhat unique to Connecticut, obtaining an annulment in Connecticut does not preclude a court from dividing assets or liabilities between the parties.  While in most state courts are not authorized to divide property or debts as part of an annulment case (the logic being that there cannot be a marital estate if there wasn’t a valid marriage), in Connecticut courts are permitted to equitably divide a couple’s assets and liabilities in deciding an annulment case, just like in a divorce.

At Broder & Orland LLC, we have extensive experience with annulment law and proceedings and can help clients properly evaluate whether annulment is available to them as an option and, if so, whether it is an option that is worth pursuing as a practical matter, as opposed to pursuing a divorce.