The Difference Between a Divorce and an Annulment

Woman in legal library holding papers and talking

People Images / Getty Images

There are two options for legally leaving a marriage: divorce and annulment, and there are several similarities and differences between the two.  

Legally, some of the biggest differences include the type of evidence that is required to obtain an annulment vs. a divorce and the obligations to and from the former spouse with each ruling. Many religions define divorce and annulment as well, and the legal ruling does not necessarily have to align with the religious designation. 

Definitions of Divorce and Annulment

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, even if the marriage is erased, the marriage records remain on file. Note that a religious annulment is not a legal dissolution of a civil marriage.

Reasons for Divorce vs. Annulment

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. But, a divorce, which is much more common, is sought when the parties acknowledge that the marriage existed, and 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. 

Divorce: Depending on state laws, there may be evidence required in order for a court to grant a divorce. Generally, a no-fault divorce, in which both parties agree to end the marriage, is becoming common, although the divorcing couple may still have disputes about property, finances, child custody, and more that must be settled through court orders. 

Annulment: An annulment ends a marriage that at least one of the parties believe should never have taken place. If the marriage took place despite unknown facts, such as a secret child, or even a secret illness, it may be a marriage that is voidable. An annulment can also end a marriage if the marriage was not legal to begin with, making it void. This might occur if issues such as bigamy or incest made the marriage illegal.

There are a number of legal grounds for obtaining an annulment, including:

  • 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 or both spouses is impotent (unable to function sexually) at the time of marriage.
  • One of both spouses lied, concealed or misrepresented something such as unwillingness to have children, already having children, legal problems, or criminal problems.

After a Divorce or Annulment

Legal experts explain that, among the differences between the two types of marriage dissolution, the marriage is never considered to have legally happened after an annulment. In simple terms, Duane L. Coker from explains this in What Is the Difference Between an Annulment and a Divorce? "An annulment essentially turns back time so that the act of marriage never happened," she says. 

Attorney, Lina Guillen, from, explains the post-dissolution circumstances in detail in Can This Marriage Be Annulled?  "The main benefit of annulment is the law treats the marriage as if it never existed. It's over, and there are no further issues to deal with. Divorce, on the other hand, may mean involvement with your ex-spouse for years to come on issues such as support, property division and raising children. Annulment isn't for everyone. Only a small percentage of those who are married can even qualify for one," she explains.

Finances After Divorce

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. 

In Annulment vs. Divorce: The Financial Differences on (2009), this difference is well explained, "When it comes to finances, the difference is stark. When a marriage is annulled, the courts usually try to restore each party to his or her original financial state before the marriage occurred."

Length of Time of the Marriage

Often, people assume that a very brief marriage can be ended with an annulment due to the short duration. However, legal experts disagree. While many states will not grant an annulment after a maximum length of time, there is not an automatic annulment granted to end a marriage because the couple wants to end it after a short period of time. 

According to Monica Cameron on in Common Questions and Misconceptions About Divorce, "Annulments are only granted when the marriage is void or one spouse misled the other spouse regarding a material fact prior to the marriage. Annulments are granted based upon very limited statutory grounds such as fraud, duress, mental incapacity such as (intoxication), failure to consummate, and incidents which involve prohibited marriages such as bigamy or close blood relatives. The length of the marriage is irrelevant when it comes to annulments." 

Legal Assistance

Both types of marriage dissolution can be fairly complicated from a legal standpoint, requiring costly and lengthy legal proceedings. Yet, either a divorce or an annulment can also be simple and low-cost if both parties agree to end the union without too many disputes or disagreements about how to do so. 

Religious Rules

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

Differences Between Annulments and Divorces

Action Annulment Divorce
State Required Length of Time Before Filing Immediately Allowed May vary up to 1-2 years, depending on the state
Marriage Existed No Yes
Children Considered Legitimate Yes Yes
Division of Property No Yes
Alimony No Possible
Difficult to legally qualify High Usually low
Grounds Specific Yes No
Marital Status Result Afterwards Single or Unmarried Divorced
Witness and Proof Required Yes No

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: This text should not be regarded as legal advice. Consult an attorney familiar with marriage and family law and your own personal circumstances for legal advice regarding civil annulments.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources