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What’s the Difference Between an Annulment and Divorce?

If you wish to legally split from your spouse, you have a few different options available to you. In California, they include separation, annulment, and divorce. Annulments and divorces are both legal degrees that end marriages. These two options have different processes and outcomes, however. A separation does not end a marriage, but gives both parties certain rights as individuals rather than part of a married couple.

What Is Annulment?

In California, the definition of an annulment, or nullity of marriage, is to declare a marriage of domestic partnership legally invalid. The courts may declare a marriage invalid if one or both parties entered into it under unlawful means. Declaring a marriage invalid resets the event, as if the marriage never happened in the first place. An annulment might be a more appropriate choice over a divorce if certain facts exist.

  • Incest
  • Bigamy
  • Filing party was under 18
  • Prior (still existing) marriage
  • Unsound mind
  • Influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Fraud
  • Force or intimidation
  • Physical incapacity
  • Mental incapacity

A lawyer can go into more detail about the potential reasons for an annulment in California. If one of these issues exists within a marriage or domestic partnership, the state family courts may grant the annulment and render the marriage void. The couple then does not need a divorce or separation. Instead, both ex-spouses will return to their status prior to the marriage, since the marriage was never legally valid.

Annulment vs. Divorce

A divorce is the legal dissolution of marriage. Unlike annulment, a divorce does not declare the marriage invalid. Instead, one or both parties will take steps to dissolve the marriage contract between them. After a divorce, the marriage will still have existed. While both parties are single and free to remarry or enter into another domestic partnership, both may have to deal with issues of child support, custody, and/or spousal support, as well as property division. Both parties will have to comply with either the agreed-upon or court-ordered terms of the divorce. This is also true for an annulment case.

To obtain an annulment in California, a party will have to prove to the courts that at least one viable reason exists for the annulment. The courts will not grant an annulment if the filing party cannot prove that the marriage was legally invalid. To obtain a divorce, however, the courts do not require any particular reason. A party can simply cite irreconcilable differences as the reason for the divorce, and the courts will grant it as long as the party fulfills the filing requirements. You do not need to prove your spouse’s fault or the invalidity of your marriage to split with a divorce decree.

Statute of Limitations on Annulments

It is important that divorce cases do not have a statute of limitations, or deadline for filing, in California, but annulments do. A couple can file a divorce case at any time after their marriage. If you wish to achieve an annulment, however, you must file your claim within a certain time period post marriage. Your deadline will depend on your reason for filing.

  • Four years after turning 18 for underage marriage
  • Any time, as long as both parties to the current marriage are alive for prior existing marriage
  • Any time for unsound mind
  • Four years after discovering fraud
  • Four years after marriage for force
  • Four years after marriage for physical/mental incapacity.

Your statute of limitations will vary according to the specifics of your case. Missing your deadline could mean losing your right to seek annulment. Depending on your situation, a divorce might be a more appropriate cause of action. It is important to speak to a California family attorney for specific information about your annulment or divorce case.