What Is The Difference Between A Divorce And An Annulment?

According to Wilkinson & Finkbeiner family law attorneys, half of all marriages within the United States will end in divorce or separation, with a current rate of 2.7 out of 1,000 people and 16.9 out of 1,000 married women, down from the all-time high of 22.6 out of 1,000 married women in the early 1980s. Divorce rates are dropping but the act of legally ending a marriage remains common, as opposed to annulment, which (per the American Bar Association) remains "[v]ery uncommon; divorces are generally easier to obtain, and the basis for annulment is narrower than the basis for divorce." What is the difference, and why would people choose one over another?

As reported by Verywell Mind, a divorce dissolves and ends a valid marriage, meaning the two former spouses are legally single again once the divorce is final. In the United States, a divorce can be "fault" or "no-fault," depending on the couple's wishes and the laws within the state in which they are pursuing a divorce. A no-fault divorce is legal in every state, and in some states it's the only option available; neither party is required to name or prove fault by their spouse in order to obtain the divorce, and the all-purpose citation of "irreconcilable differences," or "inability to agree on most things or on important things," per Merriam-Webster, is usually given as the reason for the marriage's breakdown. Fault divorce means one-half of the couple claims the other's behavior or circumstances, including adultery, abandonment, or imprisonment, is responsible for the end of the partnership.

The law treats divorces and annulments differently

While a divorce ends a valid marriage recognized by the former spouses as having existed, in an annulment, one or both spouses believe the marriage never legally happened in the first place and should be declared invalid. Per Verywell Mind, seeking a civil annulment is very extreme and requires citing specific circumstances, including bigamy, fraud, making the decision to marry while intoxicated or under a mental disability, or marrying while under the legal age to do so. A marriage of an unusually short duration is not automatically eligible for an annulment; one of the above qualifying scenarios must be present. Conversely, a long marriage might not be eligible for an annulment even if one of the above situations is cited. In California, per the California Courts Self-Help Guide, an annulment must be applied for within four years of the marriage if the reasons for voiding the marriage include being underage at the time of the marriage, fraud, being forced into marriage, and one spouse being physically incapable of consummating the marriage. In Colorado, according to Nolo, there is no time limit on applying for an annulment because of fraud, but it must be within six months of discovering said fraud.

A religious annulment is issued by church authorities and doesn't automatically legally end a marriage as recognized by the law. Similarly, a legal annulment may not be recognized as the dissolution of a marriage according to a church or religious organization.

Is annulment ever the only legal option for ending a marriage?

A divorce often entails a judge assisting or instructing the former couple on how to divide their shared assets, including homes and properties, as well as shared debts. In an annulment, per Nolo, there was never a legal marriage in the first place, so there are no legal shared assets or debts. Annulment also doesn't allow either party to seek spousal support, as the marriage is dissolved entirely and therefore the former couple were, legally, never spouses. Child support and legitimacy fall outside of these rules — both parents are legally responsible for financially supporting their underage children and any children born during the marriage remain "legitimate." 

There are only two countries in the world where it's impossible to obtain a divorce, making annulment the only option for ending a marriage: Vatican City, which is a city-state within Italy, and the Philippines. Per Foreign Policy, the Philippines is the last staunchly majority Catholic country to hold up this law, and it only applies to Catholic citizens; there's a loophole for Muslim citizens, as Islam doesn't prohibit divorce. Italy has legally recognized divorce since 1970, and they were followed by Brazil, (1977), Spain (1981), Argentina (1987), Ireland (1997), and Chile (2004).