Annulment vs. Divorce: What Are the Differences?

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There are two options for legally ending a marriage or domestic partnership, divorce and annulment, and there are similarities and differences between the two. For example, the type of evidence required to obtain an annulment vs. a divorce is different.

The biggest difference between a divorce and an annulment is that a divorce ends a legally valid marriage, while an annulment formally declares a marriage to have been legally invalid.  

  • Divorce: A legal dissolving, termination, and ending of a legally valid marriage. A divorce ends a legal marriage and declares the spouses to be single again.
  • Annulment: A legal ruling that erases a marriage by declaring the marriage null and void and that the union was never legally valid. However, the marriage records remain on file even if the marriage is erased. An annulment does not mean that the marriage never happened; it means that the marriage was never legally valid.

Many religions define divorce and annulment as well, and the legal ruling does not necessarily align with the religious designation. A religious annulment is not a legal dissolution of a civil marriage.

The 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage in the United States and requires all states to grant annulments and divorces to same-sex couples.

Legal Grounds for Annulment vs. Divorce

In legal matters, "grounds" are the basis for an action—the reasons why a decision is justified. There are different reasons for pursuing a divorce versus an annulment. At the core, ending a marriage is generally because one or both spouses want to leave the union.

A divorce, which is much more common, is sought when the parties acknowledge that the marriage existed. An annulment is sought when one or both of the spouses believe that there was something legally invalid about the marriage in the first place. 

Fault vs. No-Fault Divorce

Common grounds cited for fault divorces can include adultery, imprisonment, or abandonment. In no-fault divorce, neither party is required to prove fault on the part of their spouse in order for the divorce to be granted. No-fault divorce is legal in every state. "Irreconcilable differences" is often cited as grounds for a no-fault divorce.

Regardless of type, the divorcing couple may still have disputes about property, finances, child custody, and more that must be settled through court orders. Fault divorces can lead to larger settlements for the party without fault.

Annulment

An annulment ends a marriage that at least one of the parties believes should never have occurred. The legal grounds for obtaining an annulment vary from state to state. In most cases, to qualify for an annulment, one or more of the following must be present:

  • One or both spouses were forced or tricked into the marriage.
  • One or both spouses were not able to make a decision to marry due to a mental disability, drugs, or alcohol.
  • One or both spouses were already married at the time of the marriage (bigamy).
  • One or both spouses were not of legal age to marry.
  • The marriage was incestuous.
  • One spouse concealed a major issue, such as substance use, criminal history. a child, or an illness, from the other.

Because one of these conditions must be met and proven in court for an annulment to be granted, annulments are much less common than divorces.

Both types of marriage dissolution can require costly and lengthy legal proceedings. And both start the same way, with one or both of the spouses formally asking the court for either a divorce or an annulment.

Either a divorce or an annulment can also be simple and low-cost if both parties agree to end the union without many disputes or disagreements about how to do so. 

Timing of Annulment vs. Divorce

Often, people assume that a very brief marriage can be ended with an annulment due to the short duration. But short duration is not legal grounds for an annulment. The marriage still has to meet one or more of the conditions above in order for it to be annulled.

In addition, a marriage that has lasted a long time may not qualify for an annulment. Many states will not grant an annulment after a certain length of time. For example, in California, an annulment on grounds of fraud (one partner alleges that the other partner deceived them into agreeing to the marriage) must be requested within four years of discovery of the fraud.

An annulment may be filed very shortly after a marriage. But in some states, a couple must be married or partnered for a minimum period of time (such as one or two years) before filing for divorce. And some states require that the couple live apart for a period of time before either can file for divorce.

After an Annulment or Divorce

Among the differences between the two types of marriage dissolution: After an annulment, the marriage is considered to have never legally happened. It is as if the clock is turned back to before the marriage. After a divorce, the former spouses may still have obligations to each other, such as spousal support and division of shared property.

Finances

After a divorce, spouses are often entitled to a certain number of years of spousal support, alimony, or a portion of each others' profits or property gained during the marriage.

With an annulment, in contrast, the parties are not really considered to have been valid spouses and are not entitled to these same rights. Instead, they will revert to the financial state they were in prior to the marriage.

Children

If a couple has children and their marriage is annulled, the children are still considered “legitimate,” (i.e., not born to unmarried parents). But in some states the assumption of parentage changes, and as part of the annulment process, the judge must establish the children's parentage.

After that (or immediately, in states where the assumption does not change), the court and/or the state can determine custody and support requirements as it would in a divorce proceeding. No matter what, children are still entitled to the support of both parents, even if their parents’ marriage is considered invalid.

Differences Between Annulments and Divorces
  Annulment Divorce
State-required length of time before filing Immediately allowed May vary up to 1 to 2 years, depending on the state
Marriage existed No Yes
Children considered legitimate Yes Yes
Division of property No Yes
Alimony No Possible
Difficulty of legal qualification High Usually low
Grounds-specific Yes No (for no-fault divorces)
Marital status result Single or unmarried Divorced
Witness and proof required Yes No (for no-fault divorces)

Religious Annulments

Many religions have guidelines regarding divorce and annulment. Often, permission is granted by religious clergy or by written guidelines. Obtaining permission to have an annulment or a divorce from religious leaders is usually a completely separate process from the legal process.  

The rules regarding divorce and annulment in your religion often determine whether one, both or neither of the partners has permission to marry again within the religion or in a religious ceremony or to participate in other religious rituals.

A court of law may consider religious marital status, but does not have to recognize religious determinations when making rulings about spousal support, property disputes, or any other legal issues. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you get an annulment?

    In most cases, you must formally request an annulment from a court, just as you would a divorce. Because there is a different and usually higher standard of proof for annulments, you will need the advice of a qualified attorney. You and your attorney must present evidence of the grounds for annulment in order for the court to grant it.

    For religious annulments, the process will depend on your denomination. Check with a religious leader to learn more about the process.

  • How long can you be married and still get an annulment?

    How long you can be married before getting an annulment depends on the grounds for the annulment. State laws may differ, but often there is no statute of limitations for some grounds, such as a prior existing marriage, while for others there may be a limit imposed.

  • How do you get a Catholic annulment?

    In the Roman Catholic church, annulments (which the church calls "declarations of nullity") are granted by a church tribunal, or court. The spouse seeking the declaration must present the tribunal with written testimony about the marriage and the reasons why it should be declared null. They must also give the tribunal names of people outside the marriage who can answer questions about it.

    The tribunal will then review the case and determine whether or not the marriage is canonically invalid. This process is separate from a legal annulment. But like a legal annulment, children born of the marriage are still recognized as legitimate even if the marriage is declared null.

  • How long does it take to get an annulment?

    As with other legal proceedings, it is difficult to say how long it may take for an annulment to be granted. If both spouses are in agreement about the reasons for the annulment and the evidence is clear and available, the process may be relatively short—perhaps a few months—but will depend on court scheduling. A family law attorney in your state may be able to estimate how long the annulment process will take.

  • How much does it cost to get an annulment?

    The cost for an annulment may be similar to the cost of a divorce. In both cases, you will need to pay court fees and, usually, hire an attorney to represent you. And in both cases, the costs will rise along with the complications: Do both spouses agree to the annulment? Do both agree on the facts of the case? Do they have children? If there are disputes to be resolved, the case will take longer and therefore cost more.

  • Is an annulment easier than a divorce?

    No, an annulment is not necessarily easier than a divorce. In most cases, unless the marriage is voidable, it is likely easier to pursue a divorce rather than an annulment.

A Word From Verywell

Both divorces and annulments are legal proceedings that can be complicated. If you are pursuing a dissolution of your marriage or partnership, consult an attorney familiar with marriage and family law in your state and your own personal circumstances for legal advice.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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