What Is the Difference Between Annulment and Divorce?

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Divorce Law
This article was reviewed and approved for publication by Attorney Charlotte Christian.

A divorce legally dissolves a marriage. At the divorce’s conclusion, both parties go their separate ways, and the state considers them “single.” Annulments are slightly different. Here, the court determines the marriage null and void.

Many people think annulments make it as though the marriage “never happened.” That’s not true. Instead, an annulment notes that the marriage was never legally valid in the first place. Both divorces and annulments come with their own pros and cons. A divorce lawyer can review one’s situation and explain which one benefits their situation.

The Main Differences Between a Divorce and an Annulment

While both divorce and annulment aim to end a marriage, they have different characteristics.

Some of those include:

  • An annulment does not have a waiting period, whereas divorce does.
  • Divorce divvies up assets and property, whereas an annulment does not.
  • Divorce is forbidden in some faiths, whereas an annulment is not.
  • Divorce allows for alimony and child support, whereas an annulment does not.

As you can see, there are benefits and drawbacks to each path. However, rarely can you pick and choose which one you want, as annulments are only granted in specific circumstances. As noted, a divorce lawyer can examine your case and determine which course benefits you most.

Ending a Marriage versus Voiding It

The big difference between a divorce and an annulment depends on how a relationship started and ended. An annulment views a relationship as a mistake for various reasons—previously unknown information about your spouse, for instance, or inability to consent due to intoxication—and essentially works to erase the record of the marriage. In other words, annulment renders your marriage null and void, like it never happened.

Divorce, on the other hand, views your relationship as something that happened on purpose and with consent. You wanted to get married and went into it clear-eyed, but now feel the need to end your marriage.

Whereas an annulment by design refuses to acknowledge a marriage, divorce by design does. Even after your divorce, the marriage stays on your record as a previous union.

What Are the Grounds for a Divorce?

If your marriage is legitimate but no longer working, you could file for divorce instead of filing for an annulment. You can file for divorce if one or more of the following factors affected your relationship:

Adultery

A cheating spouse is one of the most common reasons for divorce. By committing infidelity, your partner broke their marriage vows, creating a clear motivation for ending the marriage.

That being said, while common, adultery cases can still have their complications. If used as grounds for divorce, you must provide proof of the cheating— not just hunches or suspicions.

A legal representative can demonstrate adultery ended a marriage by using:

  • Credit card statements
  • Phone and email records
  • Social media posts
  • Receipts
  • Eyewitness testimony
  • Admissions made by the other party

Your lawyer can focus on investigating your case while you focus on rebuilding your future.

Abandonment

If your spouse walked out on you without warning, you can file for divorce. However, these types of cases often have time restrictions attached to them. Many states require that you wait a year or longer before filing. This requirement helps prove that your spouse left you and has no intention of returning.

Abandonment cases can also result in criminal charges for your spouse. An example is if you had minor children and your partner left without providing for them financial support. In that case, they didn’t just abandon you but also your children. An attorney can explain your options for filing a fault-based divorce, if this could benefit your situation.

Imprisonment or Criminal Behavior

Having a spouse commit a crime during your marriage is understandable grounds for divorce. Imprisonment is one reason for filing but is not necessarily required. You can file for divorce even if your partner is not behind bars. Past criminal records or current charges can provide evidence of your grounds.

Addiction

Chemical or alcohol dependency places a tremendous burden on relationships. In some cases, that burden is too much for a spouse to bear. Reasons include the emotional or financial toll. Maybe your partner’s addiction affects your finances, and you are afraid of going broke or bankrupt. Perhaps you realize you can no longer help them.

Whatever your specific reason, addiction is a valid reason for divorce. To make this type of case, evidence can include criminal charges, medical records, eyewitness testimony, and records showing failed attempts at rehabilitation.

Mental Health Issues

You or your spouse may have a mental health condition that makes your relationship untenable. In fact, a multinational study found that mental disorders may increase the risk of divorce. The study considered phobias, major depression, and alcohol abuse.

If this is your situation, you are not alone. Testimony from therapists, doctors, and experts can support your divorce case if you are filing based on your spouse’s or your own mental health struggles. Your attorney can guide you through the process.

Irreconcilable Differences

You have likely heard this term before in reference to divorce. Rather than having one specific reason for splitting up, such as infidelity, irreconcilable differences refer to breaking up for a variety of reasons, like poor communication, different life goals, or simply growing apart. In essence, the relationship isn’t working anymore.

Domestic Violence

If your partner is abusive, you have grounds to file for divorce. No one should have to put up with physical or emotional violence in their home.

Evidence used to prove these cases includes:

  • Medical records
  • Threatening texts or emails
  • Photographic evidence
  • Eyewitness testimony
  • Expert analysis
  • Police reports

If you are a survivor of domestic violence, your attorney can advocate for your rights in divorce proceedings and protect you legally. You can even have temporary restraining orders or protective orders put in place along with your divorce filing.

What Are the Grounds for an Annulment?

The difference between divorce and annulment can boil down to how you entered into the marriage. Divorces apply to relationships that originally had some kind of legitimate foundation. Annulments apply to relationships with shaky foundations or otherwise involved:

Incest or Bigamy

Finding out you married a relative who’s a little too close for comfort could allow you to annul the marriage rather than seek a divorce.

Similarly, bigamous marriages when someone has more than one spouse are invalid. This can result from deliberate fraud or from a simple mistake, such as not finalizing a divorce before remarrying. Either scenario allows you to seek an annulment. If the bigamy resulted from a mistake, you can remarry again as soon as the previous divorce is final.

Hidden Information and Fraud

Finding out your spouse has an existing marriage is just one example of hidden information or fraud that could present a case for annulment.

Other examples include lying about:

  • Pregnancy
  • Previous children
  • Previous marriages
  • STDs
  • Sterility
  • Criminal past
  • Citizenship

For example, you may have discovered that your partner married you to protect themselves from being deported or to achieve residency in the United States. This can also put you at risk for consequences, as authorities may suspect you of being party to the fraud. Seeking an annulment can therefore protect you in more ways than one.

However, the lie doesn’t need to carry criminal repercussions. Perhaps your partner failed to disclose that they could not have children, and you had always planned on having a family. They may have deliberately concealed this fact or you two could have just not discussed the topic prior to marriage. Whatever the case, you could annul the marriage on these grounds.

Even if your situation is not listed here, if your partner hides any crucial information, you could pursue an annulment over a divorce. You can talk to a divorce attorney about the specifics of your case to determine if you are eligible for an annulment based on fraud or concealed information.

Inability to Consent

Valid marriages require that both parties know what they’re getting into. If one or both of you could not consent for whatever reason, one or both of you could annul the marriage.

Someone cannot legally consent to a union if they were/are:

  • Incapacitated
  • Intoxicated
  • Coerced
  • Underage

For example, if you were both drunk and got married hastily in Vegas, you may have grounds for annulling the marriage, as you were not cognizant of your actions at the time and could not properly consent.

More insidious are instances in which someone was not able to consent because they were incapacitated (such as due to a disability) or because they were forced into a marriage. Underage marriages are also grounds for annulment. Even if the underage party wants to get married, their parent or guardian must provide consent for the union; a lack of that consent can render a marriage entirely invalid.

Inability to Consummate

If your partner suffers from impotence and cannot consummate the marriage, you can file for an annulment. Even without impotence, if your marriage was never consummated, you can potentially still pursue an annulment.

Differences in Deadlines for Annulments and Divorces

Like all legal cases, ending a marriage requires filing paperwork at specific times. The deadlines in your case can differ depending on your circumstances as well as the state you live in.

For instance, some states require a waiting period between when a marriage license is issued and when partners can get married. Others don’t have this requirement. For those that do, it is possible to annul any marriage that takes place within that waiting period.

Your local divorce attorney can navigate the requirements in your state and meet your case’s applicable deadlines.

How Long Can You Pursue an Annulment After a Marriage?

The answer to this question depends on your reason for the annulment. Let’s return to the hypothetical scenario where you got drunk and married in Vegas. If you tried to make the marriage work for a time despite its unusual beginning, you may face more challenges in getting an annulment because you treated it like a valid union.

However, if you have grounds for an annulment, it likely doesn’t matter how long you were married, as your marriage was never valid or was built on false information. If you discovered fraud or were only able to escape a coerced relationship years after being married, you can still pursue an annulment.

When Can You Remarry After an Annulment or Divorce?

This also varies by state. Because annulment is sometimes a quicker process than divorce, you can possibly remarry faster. Additionally, your lawyer can walk you through your specific options.

Do You Have to Separate First to Get an Annulment or Divorce?

As the American Bar Association (ABA) points out, separation isn’t usually a requirement for annulment or divorce. However, some states require a certain period of separation prior to granting a divorce to allow possible reconciliation.

You can also decide to separate from your spouse and not file any official paperwork. This is because there’s a difference between a separation and a legal separation. Only the latter involves taking specific action that goes on the record and can resemble the steps taken for divorce.

Even if you aren’t sure yet if you will seek a divorce, you can talk to your lawyer about what’s needed for a legal separation.

A Divorce Lawyer Can Explain More Differences Between Divorce and Annulment

Charlotte Christian - Divorce Lawyer in Alabama
Divorce Attorney, Charlotte Christian

If you don’t see your specific case reflected here, you may still have grounds for either an annulment or a divorce.

Remember that state-specific laws can affect your grounds, deadlines, and filing requirements. Don’t assume anything about your situation. You can always consult an attorney for divorce to receive personalized information.

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