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Difference Between Annulment and Divorce

Updated on May 4, 2013

To the non-legal mind, the terms annulment and divorce may seem to share a common meaning considering that both are civil proceedings aimed at ending the marital union between legally-married couples. However, as similar as both terms may sound to be in that sense, they actually differ from each other, at least from a legal standpoint. Here's why:

Main Difference Between Annulment and Divorce

Annulment, from the word "annul" which means to cancel or to invalidate, is a legal proceeding that aims to declare any marital union as null and void. Technically, annulment doesn't end a marriage. What it does is declare that there was no valid marriage in the first place, and therefore, it didn't exist. Furthermore, commonly addressed issues in annulment proceedings are: child support, child custody, division of marital properties, and visitation. However, courts usually handle division of marital properties in a manner just like in divorce proceedings. In addition, spousal support, known as alimony in legalese terms, is usually not addressed in civil annulment proceedings, although this may not be the case in some countries.

On the other hand, divorce, from the Latin word "divortium" which means dissolution of marriage, aims to dissolve or terminate a legally-existing marital union. This is a lengthier process than annulment. In divorce proceedings, marriage between the couple is duly recognized to be existing, and due to valid grounds as defined by state laws, marriage will be dissolved or terminated; hence, ending the marital union. Commonly addressed issues in divorce are: child custody, child support, division of properties, visitation, division of liabilities, and, in most cases, alimony. One thing to note is that divorce carried a social stigma during the conservative eras of society; however, that has had changed significantly going into the more liberalized society that we know today.

Valid Grounds for Annulment and Divorce

A. Annulment

The valid grounds for annulment are usually anchored on facts, situations and circumstances that would've rendered the marriage non-existent had these been made known to either party in the first place. Although these grounds can vary in substance and in form from state to state or from country to country, the most common grounds used in annulment proceedings are: misrepresentation or fraud (any of the couple is underage or is legally married to another), coercion (any of the couple was under duress or was forced into marriage), concealment of information that renders any of the couple incapable of consummating the marriage (e.g., fertility problems, impotence, and homosexuality), and other analogous grounds as defined by state laws.

On a side note, annulment under the Catholic church is a different thing. While a couple may be able to get an annulment decree under civil laws, it doesn't mean that their marriage is automatically annulled under the Catholic church laws. This means that, unless granted an annulment decree by the Catholic church, the couple still has a binding marital union under Catholic church laws; hence, are still barred from marrying a new spouse under Church rites.

Generally, the Catholic church is very conservative in granting annulment decrees and usually has a different set of valid grounds for annulment. For the Catholic church, marriage is a very sacred union and must be protected by all means. As such, any grounds used in Catholic church annulment proceedings are heavily scrutinized and weighed before being accepted as valid by a church tribunal.

B. Divorce

Valid grounds for divorce anchor on behaviors and situations that render an existing marital union non-viable to continue. Currently, there are two types of divorce: the no-fault divorce and the fault-based divorce, each having its own valid grounds mentioned below:

  1. In fault-based divorce proceedings, one party usually accuses the other of committing a "fault" such as: physical abuse, grave threats, abandonment, cruelty, adultery, concubinage, desertion, drug abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, criminal conviction, and other analogous "faults" as determined by state laws.
  2. In no-fault divorce proceedings, neither of the spouse is accusing each other of any "fault" and have just agreed in principle that going on with the marriage isn't already in the best interests of the couple. Typical grounds used in no-fault divorce proceedings are: irreconcilable differences, loss of intimate feelings towards each other, loss of affection, and other analogous grounds as determined by state laws.

Annulment vs. Divorce - Which Would Be Appropriate?

Knowing which one to proceed with usually depends on the underlying circumstances within the couple's marriage. More often than not, when the marriage is still at its early age, annulment would seem to be the better choice, although this wouldn't always be the case. Nonetheless, it's important to keep in mind that both proceedings can have complexities and as such, the best person to give advice whether or not to go with either annulment or divorce would be a legal professional.

To recap, hereunder is a summary of the difference between annulment and divorce:

  1. Annulment is a legal proceeding that aims to declare a marital union null and void; hence, rendering it non-existent in the first place.
  2. The grounds for annulment usually anchor on facts, situations, and circumstances which would have rendered the marriage non-existent had these been known at a point prior to marriage.
  3. Divorce is a legal proceeding that aims to end or terminate a legally-existing marital union.
  4. The grounds for divorce are usually anchored on behaviors and situations that render an existing marriage already non-viable to continue.
  5. Because of the fact that divorce and annulment laws vary from one state to another or from one country to another, the issues of alimony (or spousal support), visitation, child support, child custody, and division of assets and debts, may be addressed differently or similarly under both proceedings.
  6. Although annulment and divorce differ in procedural and causative aspects, both share a commonality in a sense that either party will end up free to marry another person under civil laws.

A short video on annulment vs. divorce


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    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 5 years ago

      Annulment; "What it does is declare that there was no valid marriage in the first place, and therefore, (it didn't exist)". Although I agree with you on the definition I also think people came up with this term as a "way out" to avoid the (stigma) of being "divorced".

      Let's say a wedding takes place, 300 people attend, there are photos taken, wedding bouquet tossed, limo rented, DJ and Videographer hired, Wedding cake sliced, and a (Marriage License signed) followed by the couple going on a 7 day sex filled honeymoon...etc Afterwards for whatever reason they decide they made a mistake in getting married. Is it really possible to tell the world (The wedding did not exist) simply because the couple got an "annulment" instead of a divorce? Suppose one or both people were virgins prior to the wedding, Can we really say because the couple got an annulment meaning there was no marriage therefore they never lost their virginity???

      Marriage is not a game where you can claim a "do over" on the play ground (pretending) the first shot you took doesn't count. It's almost 2013! The stigma over being divorced is gone! There is no need to continue have annulments to pacify egos or avoid shame.

      A divorce is nothing more than an admission a (mistake) was made. Human beings make mistakes all of the time including selecting the "wrong mates" for ourselves.