Unlike a divorce which terminates a valid existing
marriage, an annulment is a decree that because a marriage was invalid from its outset, in the eyes of the law the marriage did not ever exist.
Annulments are usually available only under very specific circumstances. Contrary to popular belief, the duration of a marriage is not the determining factor in whether an annulment is granted. Some examples of valid grounds for annulment include:
- One of the married parties entered into the marriage as a result of threat, force or duress.
- One of the married parties did not have the mental capacity to enter into a marriage contract at the time of matrimony. This could be due to a permanent mental disability or temporary impairment due to injury or drugs.
- The married parties are "close" biological relatives, and should not have qualified for marriage under the law. For example, parent and child, parent and stepchild, aunt and nephew, uncle and niece, or grandparent and grandchild are all relationships under which marriage is prohibited in most states. The type of relationships that are perceived as "close", and qualify for annulment, will vary between jurisdictions.
- One of the married parties was below the legal age of consent to marriage. In some jurisdictions, the option of annulment may also depend upon whether other specified legal requirements, such as parental and/or judicial consent to the marriage, were followed.
- One of the married parties was fraudulently induced into entering the marriage. Fraud may include the concealment of an important fact, such as permanent impotence or sterility, a criminal history, or infection with a sexually transmitted disease. For an annulment to be granted based upon fraud or deception, it may be necessary for the spouse seeking the annulment to end the marriage immediately upon learning of the deception or many jurisdictions may consider that the fraud was effectually a non-issue.
- One of the married parties was married to another living person at the time of the marriage. In some jurisdictions, such a marriage would be considered to be bigamy and automatically be void in the eyse of the law. In this case, it may not be necessary to also seek an annulment. Some jurisdictions also allow an annulment where one of the spouses failed to disclose a very recently finalized divorce.
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Most jurisdictions are extremely reluctant to grant annulments once a married couple has had children. and an annulment may limit ones ability to share in the marital estate, obtain alimony, or be granted other benefit which may otherwise result from a decree of divorce.
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