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A judgment by a court that retroactively invalidates a marriage to the date of its formation.

An annulment differs from a Divorce, a court order that terminates a marriage, since it is a judicial statement that there was never a marriage. A divorce, which can only take place where there has been a valid marriage, means that the two parties are no longer Husband and Wife once the decree is issued. An annulment means that the individuals were never united in marriage as husband and wife.

Various religions have different methods for obtaining a church divorce, or annulment, but these procedures have no legal force or effect upon a marriage that complied with the requirements of law. Such a marriage must be legally annulled.


English Common Law did not provide for annulment. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the only courts in England with the power to annul an invalid marriage, when fairness mandated it, were the ecclesiastical courts. There was no statute that provided relief of this kind.

Northeastern American colonies passed laws enabling courts or legislatures to grant annulments, while other colonies adhered more closely to English traditions. The American tradition of keeping church and state separate precluded the establishment of ecclesiastical courts in the United States. Following the American Revolution, the civil courts in a majority of states never assumed that they had the authority to hear annulment cases.

A number of states eventually enacted laws authorizing annulment in recognition of the belief that it is unfair to require people to fulfill marital duties when a marriage is invalid.

Currently, most states have annulment statutes. In states that do not, courts declare that no marriage exists if the laws regulating marriage have not been observed.

An annulment declares that a marriage, which appears to be valid, is actually invalid. Two kinds of invalid marriages exist: void marriages and voidable marriages. A void marriage is one that was invalid from its very beginning and, therefore, could never lawfully exist in any way. The major grounds for a void marriage are Incest, bigamy, and lack of consent. Once these grounds are established, the court will grant a decree of annulment.

A Voidable marriage is one that can be declared illegal but that continues as valid until an annulment is sought. The annulment takes effect only from the time a court renders its decision.


State law governs the grounds for annulling a voidable marriage. Couples should not be obligated by the serious duties incident to marriage if both parties did not genuinely intend to be married.

Fraud is the most prevalent ground for annulment. The Misrepresentation, whether by lies or concealment of the truth, must encompass something directly pertinent to the marriage, such as religion, children, or sex, which society considers the foundation of a marital relationship.

Physical or emotional conditions may also be grounds for annulment, particularly when they interfere with sexual relations or procreation.

Other health conditions providing grounds for annulment include alcoholism, incurable insanity, and epilepsy. The mere existence of one of these conditions is a sufficient ground for an annulment in some states, whereas in others, an annulment may be obtained for fraud if such a condition was concealed.

Courts may also annul marriages that involved lack of consent, mistake, or duress. Lack of consent might arise if one party were senile, drunk, underage, or suffering from serious mental illness, or if there was no genuine intent to marry. A mistake as to some essential element of the marriage may also justify an annulment, for example, if the couple mistakenly believed that one party's insanity or impotence had been cured. Duress arises when one party compels the other to marry against his or her will.


State law governs the consequences of an annulment. Customarily, an annulment was a court declaration that no marriage had ever existed, but this created various problems. If a marriage was dissolved by divorce, the children of the marriage were legitimate and the parent awarded custody could be awarded Alimony. No such provisions, however, were made in an annulment. A majority of states have rectified this situation by statutory provisions. In most states, children of voidable, and sometimes void, marriages are legitimate. In addition, some states provide for alimony and property settlements upon the granting of an annulment. Several other jurisdictions allow their courts to devise a fair allocation of property where necessary and equitable.

Further readings

Escalera, Steve. 2000. "California Marital Annulments." The Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues 11 (spring): 153–8.Nelson, William T. 2000. A Treatise on the Law of Divorce and Annulment of Marriage: Including the Adjustment of Property Rights upon Divorce, the Procedure in Suits for Divorce, and the Validity and Extraterritorial Effect of Decrees of Divorce. Holmes Beach, Fla.: Gaunt.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the act of annulling.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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Upon the occurrence of any of the events indicated in the above two paragraphs, the relevant judicial authority shall verify the validity of the annulment petition and shall pass a ruling for non-enforcement of the arbitration award".
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