The Difference Between a Divorce and an Annulment

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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.

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. 

Divorce

No-fault divorces, in which neither party is required to prove fault on the part of their spouse, is legal in every state, though some require that the couple live apart for a period of time before either can file. "Irreconcilable differences" is often cited as grounds for a no-fault divorce.

Common grounds cited for fault divorces can include things like adultery, imprisonment, or abandonment.

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 taken place. If the marriage took place despite unknown facts, such as a secret child, or even a secret illness, it may be voidable. An annulment can also end a marriage if the marriage was not legal to begin with. This might occur if issues such as bigamy or incest made the marriage illegal.

The legal grounds for obtaining an annulment vary between states, but typically include reasons like the following:

  • 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.
  • Concealment of major issues such as drug abuse or a criminal history

Because one of these conditions must be met for an annulment to be granted, they are rare.

Length 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 certain 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. The marriage still has to meet one or more of the conditions above in order for it to be annulled.

Legal Assistance

Both types of marriage dissolution can be fairly complicated from a legal standpoint, requiring 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 too many disputes or disagreements about how to do so. 

After a Divorce or Annulment

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, joint childrearing, and division of shared property.

Finances After Divorce vs. Annulment

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.

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

  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
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)

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.

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