Annulment or Divorce? Understanding the differences—and ramifications—under California law

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When your marriage is ending, it’s not unusual to wish you’d never gotten married at all, have regrets, or even feel like you never had a “real” marriage. You may even wonder about annulment.

What is the difference between annulment and divorce? The result of both is the same: they both terminate your married status and sever marital ties. But while divorce ends a legal marriage, an annulment declares that there was never a valid marriage.

Many common misconceptions about legal annulment are based mainly on religious annulments. It’s important to understand that the law and the family court are only concerned with civil annulment, whereas the church can only grant a religious annulment.

There are several situations in which the court may grant an annulment, but wishing the marriage had never happened is not enough. There is also a statute of limitations in most cases.

There are two situations in which the court will automatically grant an annulment because the marriage is considered void from the start:

  • Incest. The spouses are close blood relatives.
  • Bigamy. One spouse was already married to someone else and knowingly entered into a second marriage. Bigamy is against the law in California.

Other grounds for annulment include:

  • Fraud. A spouse committed fraud to induce the other spouse to marry and that spouse was not aware of the fraud at the time of the marriage. The statute of limitations is four years from the discovery of fraud.
  • Incurable physical incapacity. For example, male impotence involves the inability to engage in sexual relations and consummate the marriage. The statute of limitations is four years from the date of marriage.
  • Unsound mind. At the time of the wedding, one or both spouses had a mental condition (this may include severe intoxication) that prevented them from comprehending the nature and responsibility of marriage. There’s no statute of limitations as long as both partners are alive.
  • Forced into marriage. One spouse used threats, violence, extortion, or other coercive means to pressure the other to get married. The statute of limitations is four years from the date of marriage.

Why else might someone want an annulment? Certain religious traditions do not recognize divorce, and the end of a marriage may mean never being able to marry again in the church. However, this situation is not grounds for the court to grant a civil annulment—you would still need to prove that one of the above legal reasons applies. The burden of proof, which is significant, is on the person who files the “Petition for Annulment.”

It’s essential to carefully consider the ramifications before opting for an annulment. The process is complex, and your case may take more time to resolve. In a no-fault state like California, filing for divorce due to irreconcilable differences is straightforward and can move quickly.

Even more critically, make sure you understand that you are relinquishing certain rights that you would have in a typical divorce. For example, because an annulment declares no legal marriage, there is no marital estate. Therefore, community property laws do not apply—the court will not divide your assets. It also means you are not entitled to spousal support and various financial benefits. In a legal marriage, the law assumes your shared children belong to both spouses. But if you annul your marriage, you must petition the court to establish paternity to ensure that custody and child support are put in place.

If you’re considering a petition to annul your marriage, seek expert legal advice. The knowledgeable and experienced attorneys at SFLG can help you navigate the complexities of annulment and divorce and choose the right path for terminating your marriage.

By Debra Schoenberg


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