Though both divorce and annulment result in a de facto termination of a marriage, there are a few key differences between the two. These reasons relate to the following factors:
- Reason/s for termination of the marriage
- Legal status of the spouses after the event
- Costs involved
- Marital property and income division
Note that there are two types of annulments – legal and religious. This post focuses only on legal annulment and how it is different from divorce.
A divorce decree terminates a legally valid marriage, while an annulment is a legal declaration that the marriage was legally invalid from the beginning, and therefore it stands, essentially, as if it never existed.
The result of divorce or annulment is the same – i.e., the marriage is terminated/no longer recognized. Now, here are the differences in detail:
1. Reasons for Termination of the Marriage
Spouses file for a divorce because they acknowledge that they are legally wedded but want to exit the marriage. A divorce grants this exit legally. The grounds for divorce depend on whether the spouse opts for a no-fault divorce or an at-fault divorce. This choice depends on the circumstances that led to the divorce and the divorce laws followed by the state.
In a no-fault divorce petition (allowed in all states), all that a spouse has to say is that there are irreconcilable differences in the marriage, the marriage has irretrievably broken down, or the spouses are incompatible, and so the divorce should be granted. No other reason is required to be given.
On the other hand, in an at-fault divorce (allowed only in some states), the reasons that a petitioning spouse has to give are related to a marital misdemeanor such as adultery, bigamy, domestic violence, addiction, etc. Moreover, to succeed, the petitioning spouse must conclusively prove these allegations against the other spouse in the courts.
Spouses file for an annulment because they find that their marriage is legally invalid. In other words, the marriage never legally existed. The reasons for obtaining an annulment can vary between states. Usually, they include:
- Either one or both spouses were coerced into marriage.
- Either one or both spouses engaged in deception or trickery, which led to the marriage.
- Either one or both spouses were incapable of deciding to marry because they were mentally unstable or their decision to marry was invalid (maybe because it was influenced by an addiction to drugs or alcohol).
- Either one or both spouses were already married (bigamy).
- One or both spouses had not yet reached the legal age required to marry.
- The marriage was incestuous.
- One spouse hid a major problem from the other spouse at the time of the marriage (for example, hiding an addiction to alcohol/drugs, criminal history, or he/she had already fathered/mothered a child, was incapable of reproduction, etc.).
2. Legal Status of the Spouses after the Event
After an annulment, a spouse’s legal status is restored to “single.”
After a divorce, a spouse’s legal status is referred to as “divorced.”
As mentioned earlier, this post is focused on legal annulment. Catholics, and other people who are part of religions that do not allow divorce, may also consider obtaining a religious annulment from their religious leaders so that they are considered single, and their children from the annulled marriage are considered legitimate from the religious point of view.
3. Costs Involved
Both annulment and at-fault divorce are expensive and lengthy legal processes because the reasons for terminating the marriage must be conclusively proved in the courts.
A no-fault divorce, on the other hand, is simpler, cheaper, and quicker. If both spouses are in agreement about child custody and property division, and are okay with their legal status being set to “divorced,” then they may consider filing for a no-fault divorce instead of filing for an at-fault divorce or annulment (as the case may be), thereby saving time and money.
Costs and time are the reasons why both annulments and at-fault divorce cases are less common than no-fault divorce cases.
4. Marital Property and Income Division
In a no-fault divorce, assets are divided based on the state’s property distribution laws. Usually, 50/50 property division is awarded in such divorces.
In an at-fault divorce, if the wronged spouse conclusively proves the marital misdemeanor of the other spouse, the courts may award him/her a higher share of the marital property, alimony, or award primary/sole child custody.
Most annulments are filed soon after marriage because things like bigamy, addiction, deception, etc., are likely to be discovered at an early stage. If the annulment is filed within a few months of marriage, each spouse is likely entitled to the assets/debts that he/she originally owned/owed before the marriage.
An annulment order states that the marriage was not legally valid, and that makes it difficult for a spouse to claim alimony or property that belongs to the other spouse. However, in some cases, the courts may assign a “domestic partner (putative spouse)” status to a spouse and grant him/her alimony and/or a share of the marital property. If the spouses acquired assets or incurred debts during the marriage, the courts may split it 50/50.
If the marriage lasts for many years, then the courts may not grant an annulment and instead suggest that the couple get a divorce. Property division then occurs based on state laws ( community property distribution or equitable property distribution).