Frequently Asked Questions About the Annulment Process
What is an annulment in the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament of marriage is a union blessed by God, a life-long spiritual bond that cannot be dissolved by human beings. But in order for a sacramental union to exist, there must be more than a wedding ceremony, more than a ring, more than a reception. The Church states that there are six conditions necessary for creating this sacramental bond: (1) each member of the couple must be free to marry in the eyes of the Church; (2) each must be able to give consent to marry; (3) each must freely exchange consent; (4) in consenting to marry, each must have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (5) each must intend the good of the other; and (6) their consent must be given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister (exceptions to the last requirement must be approved in advance by a Church authority).
A declaration of nullity, also commonly known as a Church annulment, is an official decree from the diocesan Marriage Tribunal that states that one or more of those essential conditions for a valid marriage did not exist at the time the wedding took place. A Church annulment decree means that in the eyes of the Church, a sacramental marriage never took place.
Why is obtaining a Church annulment necessary?
Annulment is necessary for several reasons. First and foremost, Jesus Christ expressly taught that if two people divorce and then remarry, they are committing the grave sin of adultery. He said:
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). Because of this teaching, the Church cannot simply give divorced people permission to remarry. To do so would be to give them permission to commit adultery.
In reviewing petitions for annulment, the Church is determining, to the best of its ability, whether a sacramental marriage ever took place. An annulment is not “Catholic divorce” because the Church is not breaking a valid legal marital bond or relationship. Instead, it is decreeing that no sacramental marriage ever took place. If an annulment is granted, then both parties to the original marriage are declared free to marry again in the Church.
Many people who have no immediate intention of remarrying find the process of petitioning for annulment useful as part of obtaining full closure on the ended relationship, and getting their spiritual life in order.
How is a Church annulment different from a legal divorce?
A divorce is a legal proceeding—not affiliated with any church or church process—that dissolves a marriage that was legal in the eyes of the state. A divorce decree is a civil judgment that severs the legal bond between two people, and stipulates the terms for other matters governed by state and federal laws, including, for example, the division of property and the relationship of parents to their children (visitation and custody). Divorce ends a legal connection, but it does not address the validity of the sacramental, spiritual bond between two people. A divorce is declared by the state, and the state has no authority to pass judgment on the sacramental bond.
Is a Church annulment the same thing as a legal annulment?
No. A man or woman can file for a civil annulment if they can prove that certain conditions for a legal marriage in their state were absent. The legal annulment cancels a marriage in the eyes of the government, as though it is completely erased - legally, it declares that the marriage never technically existed. Although there are some parallels between both civil and Church annulments, when the state grants an annulment, it is addressing only the legal relationship between two people. A legal annulment does not address whether the spiritual bond of marriage took place. Obtaining a legal annulment does not ensure that a Church annulment will be granted.
Will my children be declared illegitimate if I get a Church annulment?
No. Annulment in the Catholic Church is a decree that one or more of the essential conditions were absent for creation of a spiritual, life-long, unbreakable bond of marriage. Being granted a Catholic annulment means only that it has been demonstrated that the conditions for this sacred bond were not met. The Church annulment is not related to the legal relationship between two people and their children; children who were born to two legally married people will be just as legitimate after the Church annulment as they were before. The Church annulment matters in terms of a person’s spiritual life and their capacity to remarry in the Church. It has no bearing on the legal terms of the divorce decree or the legitimacy of children.
Does it cost a lot of money to get an annulment in the Catholic Church?
The Marriage Tribunal for the Dioceses of Knoxville and Nashville does not charge any fees. There are also no fees of any kind charged at the parish level for assistance with processing forms or paperwork. If you are seeking an annulment in another diocese, inquire locally regarding the possible existence of fees. Giving a donation to the Church will not help you get an annulment.
What are some reasons that an annulment can be granted?
The Marriage Tribunal case review seeks to determine if something essential was missing at the moment of consent, that is, at the time of the wedding. If so, the Church can declare that a valid, sacramental marriage was never actually brought about on the wedding day. There are 14 reasons—called “grounds”—that could potentially cause or result in problems with consent:
- Grave lack of discretionary judgment regarding essential marital rights and duties
- At the time of marriage one or both parties was impacted by some circumstance or factor(s) that seriously impaired their ability to understand and evaluate the decision to marry and/or create a true marital relationship.
- Due to debilitating psychological or emotional conditions, one or both of the partners were unable to fulfill normal marital obligations.
- Error about a quality of a person
- Intention was to marry someone who either possessed or did not possess a certain quality (education, social status, freedom from disease, etc.).
- One member of the couple was intentionally deceived into thinking the other had a particular quality, and the purpose of the deception was to obtain marriage.
- One or both of the partners marries because of fear that was inescapable and caused by an outside source (such as a threat of harm to family members).
- Marry for external physical or moral force that is so overwhelming it could not be ignored (such as might be felt in an unplanned pregnancy).
- Belief that the state has absolute power over marriage (aka Determining error):
- One or both members of the couple believe that any marriage can or should be dissolved under certain conditions, and that remarriage is allowable after civil divorce.
- Total willful exclusion of marriage
- One or both of the partners marry for some reason other than to form a life-long marriage bond, and create a family unit where caring, permanence, fidelity and openness to children are the purpose; for example, marrying to obtain legal status in a country, or to make ones child legitimate.
- Total willful exclusion of marital permanence
- One or both partners marry with the idea that the marriage can always be ended if things don’t work out.
- Total willful exclusion of fidelity
- One or both partners marry with the idea that being faithful to one’s spouse is optional
- Total willful exclusion of children
- One or both partners marry intending to deny each other sexual acts that could result in pregnancy and the birth of children.
- Expectation of a past condition
- One or both parties attaches a past condition to the decision to marry (that the person has completed college; never been arrested or experimented with drugs)
- Expectation of a present condition
- One or both partners marry based on the assumption that a person possesses a quality or condition (such as freedom from disease, freedom from debt), and would not have married if the absence of the condition had been known.
- Expectation of a future condition
- Marry based on the incorrect assumption that a future condition will be met (such as a particular financial status), and would not have married if it were known that the condition would not be achieved.
In addition, the Church looks to see if the marriage ceremony itself took place under conditions approved by the Church. When one or both of the parties is Catholic, the Church requires the wedding to be officiated by an authorized Church minister (priest or deacon) in the presence of two witnesses. If any of these conditions was not met, then the wedding is determined to meet criteria for Lack of Form, and the marriage is declared null in the eyes of the Church.
How can I demonstrate that my consent was defective or invalid?
There are two means of providing evidence that there were impediments or barriers to effective consent.
- Questionnaire narrative
- At your first meeting with the Pastor or Case Sponsor, you will be asked to discuss your courtship, family background, and circumstances surrounding the decision to marry. Emphasis will be placed on the time surrounding the engagement, wedding, and newlywed period. Regardless of what may have happened to cause the breakup of the marriage years later, for purposes of the annulment petition, the emphasis will be on the period surrounding the wedding—because the Church needs to know if the consent of one of the partners was defective at that time. Once you have discussed this early phase of your relationship with your former spouse, the Pastor or Case Sponsor will make a determination of the grounds that closest match your circumstances.
- Once the grounds have been determined, you will be asked to respond in writing to a series of 12 to 14 questions about your early family life, courtship, engagement, wedding, newlywed period, and the later years of your marriage. These questions will ask for details about your life together in each of these relationship phases.
- Two things are crucial to making this narrative rich enough so that the Tribunal can understand and have a feel for your relationship: details, and honesty. Remember that the people reviewing your case at the Marriage Tribunal do not know anything about you or your life with your former spouse unless you tell them. It is not enough to simply say, “We didn’t get along,” or “I was young and immature.” Those kinds of statements do not provide any kind of documentation of lack of consent. Instead, you will need to give very specific examples of behaviors, incidents, conversations, or problems that demonstrate the lack of consent or lack of intent to enter into sacramental marriage. Remember that people at the Tribunal evaluate hundreds of cases over the course of the 18 months to 2 years that your case is in their active file. Even if your narrative reveals flaws in your decision-making, or behavior about which you are not proud, it is highly probable that no one at the Tribunal is going to link those things to your actual person; they aren’t going to recognize you on the street, or remember your name at all in a few months. In describing the circumstances of your marriage, full disclosure and honesty are the best policies.
- Witness statements
- You will be asked to list the names of three to five credible persons who preferably knew you and/or your former spouse at the time of the wedding, and/or through the marriage. These should be people who can attest to events surrounding your relationship as a couple. Witnesses will be asked to respond to questions about the relationship, circumstances of the wedding, and factors that might have impeded the capacity to consent to marriage. Family members, in-laws, friends, teachers in whom you may have confided, members of the clergy, neighbors, or anyone else who may have known you at the time of your marriage can be witnesses.
- It is also possible to obtain records from counselors, therapists, physicians, and hospitals, if these support your contention that effective consent was absent. If you would like these records considered in your case, you will be asked to sign a Confidentiality Release.
- Periodically, members of the clergy who counsel engaged couples will observe signs that indicate a troubled relationship and as a result advise the couple against a marriage, or recommend they extend their engagement to better work out their differences. Often notations about these reservations are document in parish records. If this has happened to you, it may be possible to obtain those records as well, or have the priest or clergy in question serve as a witness.
In addition to the questionnaire narrative, you will need to submit with your petition:
- Recently issued (within 6 months) Certificates of Baptism for both parties (if applicable)
- Marriage Certificate
- Pre-nuptial agreements (if applicable)
- Copy of the Final Divorce Decree
- Copy of any previous Annulments granted (if applicable)
- Copy of any death decrees (for example, for previous spouses)
- Confidentiality releases (if applicable)
- Proof of attempts to contact a former spouse whose address is unknown (if applicable)
Can I file for an annulment in any diocese?
No. It is preferred that you file in the diocese where you were married. Under certain conditions, it is also possible to file in the diocese where you or your spouse currently lives. If in doubt, check with your Pastor or Case Sponsor.
What are the odds of my petition being granted?
This is impossible to say. What is absolutely certain is that the more complete your answers to questions, and the greater detail given, the greater the likelihood that the Tribunal will obtain a clear image of your marriage relationship and the factors that impacted your decision-making and complicated your ability to make informed, well-considered choices. If a petitioner provides scant information for the Tribunal, it is possible that a case could be rejected or denied when it might otherwise have justified an affirmative decision for annulment. Comprehensive answers from the petitioner and witnesses will provide the Tribunal with the greatest amount of evidence on which to base their decisions. Submitting paperwork that is superficial and lacking detail handicaps the Tribunal judges as they review your case.
Does my former spouse need to know I am petitioning for annulment?
Generally speaking, yes. It is the policy of the Marriage Tribunal to notify the former spouse that a Church annulment is being sought, and the reason given. Additionally, both parties have the opportunity to provide witnesses, and know the names of the witnesses of the petitioner; review testimony and documents contained in the file (though these can only be viewed at the Tribunal office); obtain a copy of the final decision of the Tribunal; and challenge the Tribunal decision within 15 days of being notified.
If a petitioner has serious concern for his or her life and well-being or that of their families if the former spouse is notified of proceedings, this should be discussed with the Pastor or local parish Case Sponsor.
How will the official decrees released by Pope Francis change the process of obtaining an annulment?
Nothing has changed at the parish level in terms of filing petitions for annulment. Petitioners are required to complete the same questionnaires, provide the same documentation, and obtain the agreement of witnesses to provide statements.
At the Tribunal level, there are some changes that could potentially result in a speedier process:
- In the past, after the diocesan Tribunal ruled affirmatively to grant an annulment, the decision was automatically given a second review in another diocese. The new regulation allows the first decision to be sufficient under certain circumstances. This can potentially reduce the annulment process by several weeks.
- The format for reviewing cases at the Tribunal may be shortened, especially in cases where documentary evidence is especially clear and strong. This could also potentially abbreviate the process.
- Under certain conditions where obtaining the preferred number of witnesses is a problem, the Tribunal will be authorized to make a determination based on responses from a fewer number of credible witnesses.
How long does this petition and review process take?
Petitioners should allow about 18 months, and possibly as long as 2 years for the entire process from submission of materials to the receipt of a decision, although in some cases an affirmative decision (annulment granted) is returned in as little as a year. Because the Marriage Tribunal is impacted by the volume of cases submitted, as well as by life events among its staff (retirements, births, and typical personnel changes) this timeline could potentially be longer or shorter.
You can help move the review process along by submitting documents that are complete, and urging your witnesses to submit their responses quickly, stressing to them the importance of providing strong, detailed statements. During the time the Tribunal is awaiting replies from your witnesses, nothing happens with your case; it waits. If it takes your witnesses a month or six weeks to respond, then that is a month or six weeks when your case is not making progress through the system. Because the new Papal decrees have just gone into effect, it is unclear how their implementation might impact this timeline. Hopefully the guidelines will result in a speedier disposition of each case, but it will take time and experience with their implementation to accurately judge their impact.
Petitioners who are planning a wedding in the Church should not set a date for the wedding until the approved (granted) annulment is in hand. Regardless of how clear-cut the facts seem, until the Tribunal has made its decision, there is never any guarantee that the annulment will be granted.
If I want to submit an annulment petition, or discuss my case with someone, how do I connect with the right person?
At St. Augustine Parish, Susan Speraw is the Annulment Coordinator/Case Sponsor. She was trained in 1998 by the Marriage Tribunal of the Diocese of Knoxville and Nashville to assist individuals with annulment filings, and has been helping people as part of her ministry ever since. In that time she has helped hundreds of individuals in both the Diocese of Knoxville and the Diocese of Portland, Oregon with their cases. She can be reached by contacting the parish office.
What will happen after we connect?
As soon as you reach out to the parish Case Sponsor, Susan Speraw, you will be contacted to establish an appointment. That initial meeting will typically be face-to-face, last about 90 minutes. During the visit you will discuss your specific situation, the grounds for the annulment will be determined, and you will receive the questionnaires that must be completed. It will then be up to you to complete a draft of your responses. How long that process of writing your responses takes is up to you.
Once your draft is finished, you will send it to the Case Sponsor who will review it and make comments, for example, highlighting inconsistencies, places where the narrative might be confusing, or suggesting areas where more detail would be helpful. Once revisions are made and the documents are complete, they will be mailed and the timeline for review will begin.
What if I have handicaps, disabilities, or conditions that make it difficult or impossible for me to meet in person, write, read, or type?
These circumstances are not barriers to petitioning for annulment. The Case Sponsor for St. Augustine has experience working with people with a variety of physical disabilities and/or low literacy. If needed, the Case Sponsor will read the questions to you, transcribe your responses to the questions, and do what is needed to assist you to file your petition. If needed, she will even be willing to meet with you via distance (such as Skype).
Resources for Further Reading
Nguyen, B. (September 9, 2015). Annulment Reform: 6 Misconceptions and 6 Developments. National Catholic Register.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2016). For Your Marriage: Annulments (Declarations of Nullity). Accessible at http://www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulments/.