A divorce is a court order stating that a marriage has come to an end. An annulment is a court order proclaiming that a marriage never existed. The person seeking the annulment must prove to the court that the marriage is void or voidable, and she must bring the action in a timely fashion. The legal time frame depends on the grounds for annulment. It is a common misconception that, if you regret a marriage and you act quickly, you can annul it. This is false. The short length of a union is never grounds for annulment.
Annulment vs. Divorce
If you win a petition for annulment or divorce, you are, at the end of the day, unmarried. However, although both roads lead you back to a single state, they are very different terrain.
A divorce ends a valid marriage. All states allow some form of no-fault divorce, so either spouse can decide that the marriage isn't working and end it on claims of irreconcilable differences or something similar. But in order to end a marriage in divorce, the marriage must be valid. An invalid marriage does not exist, so it cannot be ended by a petition for dissolution.
However, a marriage can be declared invalid by the filing of a petition for annulment. In order to have a marriage annulled, one of the partners must prove either that the marriage was void or that it was voidable.
Void vs. Voidable
A void marriage cannot be saved no matter how much the two people want to save it. Void marriages are simply not marriages, and an annulment makes that fact a legal reality. Generally, a marriage is void if one spouse is legally married to a third person when he attempts to tie the knot. It is also void if the couple are so closely related as to make the marriage incestuous.
Marriages are voidable in a variety of circumstances. If either party is below the age of consent, that person can have the marriage voided. If either party was of “unsound mind,” got married as a result of fraud (regarding something vital to the relationship), consented to marry as a result of force, or was physically incapacitated and unable to consummate the marriage or mentally incapacitated, and unable to consent to marriage.
Annulment Time Frame
There is no time frame to annul a void marriage. The marriage did not actually occur in the eyes of the law, and the court can issue a order stating this at any time.
You do have time frames in which to act if a marriage is voidable rather than void. But the time frame depends on your reason for seeking the annulment as well as the state you live in. States set different time frames, so check with an attorney. In California, the rules are as follows:
- Age: A person who marries while under age has until she turns 22 to ask for an annulment, although her parent can get the marriage annulled only while the person is still a minor.
- Unsound mind: An annulment can be filed at any time before the death of either spouse.
- Fraud: The person who was deceived can file for an annulment within four years of discovering the fraud.* Force: The person who was forced to give consent can file for annulment within four years of getting married.
- Physical incapacity: The spouse claiming that her spouse is physically incapacitated can file for an annulment within four years of getting married.