What is an Annulment?

Pop singer Britney Spears married her childhood sweetheart, Jason Alexander, at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas Saturday morning January 3, 2004 at 5:30 AM. She was escorted down the aisle by a hotel bellman. The bride wore jeans and a baseball hat. 55 hours later, on Monday morning at about 10:00 AM, Britney’s attorney filed a petition for annulment of the marriage. A few hours later it was granted. Britney married Kevin Federline nine months later on September 2004.

The petition for annulment said Britney “lacked understanding of her actions to the extent that she was incapable of agreeing to the marriage.” Reasons given included: “Before entering into the marriage the plaintiff and defendant did not know each other’s likes and dislikes, each other’s desires to have or not have children, and each other’s desires as to state of residency. . .Upon learning of each other’s desires, they are so incompatible that there was a want of understanding of each other’s actions in entering into this marriage.”

An annulment is a ruling by the court that puts aside a marriage as though it never existed. Technically, an annulment refers only to making a voidable marriage null; if the marriage is void from the start, such as in the case of bigamy, then it is automatically null, although a legal declaration of nullity is required to establish this.

In Pennsylvania, invalid marriages include situations such as when either party had an existing spouse at the time of the marriage, when the parties are blood relatives within a certain degree, or when either party could not consent because of a mental defect or other related reason. These marriages are void without an annulment and their status can be established by a legal declaration of nullity.

Other marriages may be declared void by Pennsylvania courts and an annulment granted if 1) the spouses are less than 16 years of age and lack the consent of a parent or the court to marry, 2) where either party was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, 3) when either party was at the time of the marriage incurably impotent or 4) either party entered into the marriage as a result of fraud, duress, coercion, or force.

The rationale for granting an annulment is that marriage is a contract, and if either individual was unable to enter into the contract, the court may determine that no contract of marriage ever existed. After an annulment, the spouses have no right to inherit, one from the other, and no right to be supported.

Children born to or adopted within a marriage that is later annulled are legitimate children. They have the right to financial support from both parents and to get property at the death of either parent regardless of whether the parents’ marriage was valid.

Many people mistakenly believe that annulments are common for short marriages, and that it is a proceeding that is easier and less expensive than divorce. Actually, an annulment is more complicated than divorce because it must be established that the marriage was entered into improperly; the parties can’t just consent to an annulment. An annulment is sought in order to nullify the marriage and return the parties to their prior single status, as if they never married. Establishing the grounds for an annulment is difficult. Many Pennsylvania lawyers advise clients to file for divorce and avoid the difficulties.

There is a tax result, also, to be considered. If your marriage is annulled by court decree, and you are thus treated as if no marriage ever existed, then for federal income tax purposes you are considered unmarried even if you filed joint returns for earlier years. According to an IRS ruling, if an annulment is retroactive, you were never married and have no right to file joint returns. You must file amended returns claiming either single or head of household status for all tax years affected by the annulment that are not closed by the statute of limitations for filing a tax return. The statute of limitations generally does not expire until 3 years after your original return was filed.

An annulment granted through a church or other religious entity is not the same as a legal annulment. The courts consider marriage as a contract, not as a church sacrament. Only a legal annulment or divorce gives the parties the legal right to remarry according to the law in the United States. Religious annulment gives the parties the right to remarry through their religious organization.

While other denominations have annulments, one usually hears of them in the context of the Catholic Church where marriage is believed to be indissoluble. However, a person who is divorced may petition the Church to review the marriage and investigate whether a full, free-willed consent was exchanged at the time of the wedding. The Church uses the same rationale as the civil law. The annulment process is not a method to dissolve a marriage but rather to determine whether a marriage was valid. In the Jewish religion, marriages can be annulled but very rarely is it done.

A religious marriage or annulment has no effect on the civil status of the marriage. Similarly, a civil annulment has no effect in religious law.