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You married and it did not turn out well, so The marriage ended, most likely, in divorce. Now you want to enter the Catholic church, or marry a Catholic, or need a peace of mind for whatever reason (often spiritual). What do you do? Maybe somebody, often a Catholic priest, recommends an annulment. The questions began: why do I need an annulment I'm not Catholic? Can I still service in a ministry as a divorced Catholic? What the heck is an Annulment? What is the purpose?
What documents you need to start a case
Legal document of The Civil Marriage
Proof of the Catholic Marriage (if Catholic)
Baptismal Certificates with notations (if Catholic)
The Divorce Decree with the judge's signature and date
A rough understanding of the development of annulments
The scriptural reason for an annulment is found in Matthew 19:1-9. The Pharisees are testing Jesus about divorce. They want to know if it is lawful to divorce. Jesus responds, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery (Mt 19:7-9).” First, this passage explains why Catholics can’t remarry. They can divorce and still be active in the Church. Once they remarry, they are in violation of Matthew 19:9. While they are still part of the community, they can’t partake of certain ministries, particularly the ones pertaining to the liturgy, the sacraments, and the teaching office. Also based on this scripture passage, the tribunal sees all marriages, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, as valid. This is the tribunal’s legal presumption. For example, A divorced Baptist wants to marry a Catholic. The Baptist would have to receive a declaration of nullity before marrying the Catholic.
Second, Jesus hinted at something interesting by saying “unless the marriage is unlawful.” He reminds the reader that there are invalid marriages based on Leviticus 18 and other violations of natural law. The Catholic Church began understanding these violations against marriage.
Certain reasons, called grounds, for annulments began to surface over the centuries as canon law developed. Today, these grounds were important to determine whether a marriage can be declared annulled. In the United States, the most common ground is 1095 §2 or lack of due discretionary judgment. Other common grounds are the simulation grounds: total simulation and partial simulation against the good of the spouses, openness to children, fidelity, perpetuity, and/or the sacrament. There are many other grounds, such as force and fear, that a tribunal will investigate to adjudicate a case. Understanding grounds can be a rabbit hole, so I’ll post a blog on the ground at another time.
Witnesses, Witnesses, Witness!!!
Seen the whole relationship
Will write descriptively
Most tribunal need 3-4 witnesses, because they need to collaborate testimony.
A good witness is a talkative one.
Please make sure they are still alive.
How to begin a Case
The petitioner, the one who wants to start a case, introduces his case in the tribunal of place where “the marriage was celebrated” or where he has lived for 3 months with the intent to stay. He can also start a case where the respondent is currently living or where the majority of the evidence is located (c. 1672). For example, If the petitioner was married in Mexico but lives in the New York, the New York tribunal would be the easiest choice. Since the witnesses often make your case, think about where they live because they will receive questionnaires pertaining to the case.
Every tribunal has their own procedures in starting a case, but they all follow canon law. The first place the petitioner should go is their home parish or a local parish. The petitioner should ask if there is a tribunal representative, advocate, or procurator. Hopefully, somebody in the parish will give you the contact number or set an appointment. If they are clueless, please contact the tribunal. At the very least, the pastor should have that number.
Since most tribunals don’t charge for their services (they might ask for a donation) and a petitioner has a right to choose an approved advocate (c. 1481 §1), he could hire a Canonist to be the advocate and/or procurator because it could be beneficial to your case. Most assigned advocates from the diocesan tribunal do not degrees in canon law and work or volunteer for that Tribunal. They help with the gathering of evidence and the paperwork. A Canonist knows the law and, for example, can submit an argument in the final brief. They can help in proposing grounds and find good witnesses depending on the canonist. Here are some canon law firms: www.canonicalaid.org, www.canonlaw.us, http://canonlawprofessionals.com, www.catholiccanonlaw.com. There are others you can google. I recommend the keyword: rotal advocate. A rotal advocate can operate anywhere in the world without permission of the diocesan tribunal. Just make sure they are in your country.
For Civil Law: Innocent until proven guilty.
For Canon Law: The marriage is valid until proven otherwise.
The advocate and/or the tribunal will determine how to proceed with your case. The declaration of nullity is the most common and the one I address in this article. There are other processes like lack of form, ligamen, and privilege of the faith. Each process is unique and regulated by canon law; therefore, the tribunal or the advocate determines which process. Most tribunals are overloaded with cases and understaffed, so they know the best course of action to move the caseload.
The petitioner might know the civil legal presumption: innocent until proven guilty. In a marriage tribunal, the legal presumption is that all marriages are valid until proven otherwise. The burden of proof is on the parties of the marriage. The case will depend largely, and often, on witnesses. There are other forms of evidence such as legal and medical documents, but the witnesses’ testimonies often determine the readiness of a case. The petitioner should work with their advocate to find and evaluate 3 to 4 very good witnesses. When filling out the Libellus (the petition for nullity), the petitioner should ensure they are writing down the full and correct address of the witnesses. Let the witnesses know that the tribunal will be sending them questionnaires once the case has been accepted. They should finish those questionnaires within the month of receiving them. The biggest slow down of a case is waiting for the witnesses.
The ex-spouse is also a very helpful because his or her testimony often collaborates with the petitioner’s testimony. If the petitioner is on good terms with the ex, the ex can be given notification about the upcoming case because the tribunal will try to contact them. Otherwise, don’t contact them and let the tribunal handle them if there are questions.
The Code of Canon Law requires that a citation is sent to the respondent when a case starts because they have the same rights as the petitioner in the case. While working with your advocate, try to locate your ex-spouse. There are many sources that help, such as white page and other people search sites. The petitioner might pay from $2 to $5 per search. You must show that you tried your best to locate him or her. If the petitioner submits the Libellus without some evidence of a search, the tribunal will send the Libellus back.
The Libellus will ask for the following documents: proof of civil and ecclesiastical marriage, proof of baptism for the petitioner and respondent (if Catholic), the divorce decree with the judge’s signature and date. While the advocate can advise the petitioner, it is the petitioner’s responsibilities to find these documents.
The most important document to submit is the questionnaire. The tribunal will use this to determine the ground; therefore, take time to finish it. Avoid general words like normal, fine, good to describe anything. The petitioner should be detailed in the responses to all the questions. Remember, if something happened at the end of the marriage, such an affair, it will not determine the grounds if there is no pre-wedding connection. Most judges look at the whole relationship to determine the ground and nullity.
Once the petitioner has finished the paperwork, make two copies. Some tribunals accept copies and others the originals, but the petitioner and the advocate should have a copy. There is nothing worse than starting over because the mail lost the Libellus. The advocate should submit the Libellus to the tribunal. The case is considered started once it has been accepted and receives a protocol number.
The advocate should be the point person for the case. Calling the tribunal won’t help to speed up the case, so patience is key. The petitioner should call the advocate for an update. Don’t be upset because the case is waiting in line. Honestly, nothing can be done, except maybe calling the witness if they have not turned in their questionnaires after 3 months. Some tribunals do not have a system to call witness after an allotted. There is a different timeframe from one tribunal to the next because of the caseloads in each tribunal. Don’t expect the process to be done within a year realistically. Don’t set any wedding dates or other important dates. If the petitioner is entering the Catholic Church, start the case ASAP. If the case is not ready, the petitioner needs to talk to the tribunal.
The breakdown of marriage is difficult. It is never fun to revisit such moments. Many of us want to let dragons lie and not dredging up the past. On the other hand, there is a sense of peace and closure that can come from this process. Now I am not saying that the tribunal is a ministry of healing because it is not. The tribunal officials are only looking for equity in the case. As a petitioner, you can make the best of the process and find ways to make peace with the past.
The annulment process is at least a year, but it can easily last longer. They’ll ask for many things. Many forms will be filled out. I lay before you how to start an annulment procedure, so you can determine your next course of action. Are you ready? Is it time? These questions are up to you to decide.
When I train tribunal advocates or representatives, I use the following books: