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What’s the difference between annulment and divorce?

Man removing a wedding ring

Couples who marry and want to legally cut ties generally have two options: annulment or divorce. What is an annulment and how is it different than divorce?

When you hear annulments mentioned in films or on TV the subject is often raised as an easy solution to a marriage gone wrong. But in reality, how easy is it to annul a marriage and what are the pros and cons of annulment vs. divorce? We answer common questions about annulments here.

What is an annulment?

Annulment definition or annulment meaning: A marriage annulment is a legal finding that declares a marriage invalid based on certain grounds that vary from state to state. By granting an annulment, a judge rules that what was once a legal marriage never existed. 

Some couples may also seek to have an annulment granted through a religious body, like the Catholic Church. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops describes a Catholic annulment as “a declaration by a Church tribunal (a Catholic Church court) that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.”

Since state laws and religious laws differ, a declaration of annulment by a state court doesn’t necessarily guarantee the Church will also grant a Catholic annulment—or vice versa. If you only want a legal annulment, call a divorce attorney. If you want a Catholic annulment, contact your priest as well.

What’s an annulment and what are the grounds for an annulment in Texas?

In the state of Texas, the court may consider a petition for annulment based on certain grounds, which are described in Chapter 6 of the Texas Family Code. The general grounds for annulment in Texas include:

  • Underage marriage: Person over the age of 16 and under 18 years of age married without parental consent or court order.
  • Drugs or alcohol: Person married while under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.
  • Impotency: Either party was impotent at the time of marriage.
  • Fraud: One party used fraud, duress or force to induce the other party into marriage.
  • Mental incompetence: The party didn’t have the mental capacity to consent to marriage or understand the nature of the ceremony due to a mental disease or defect.
  • Recent divorce that wasn’t disclosed: The party didn’t know and wasn’t informed that the other party recently (30 days or less) divorced a third party.
  • Marriage prior to Texas’ 72-day waiting period. Marriage took place less than 72 hours after issuance of the marriage license.

What is an annulment ground we hear people claim most at our Fort Worth family law firm? Fraud. An annulment grounded in fraud may look something like this:

You marry Joe. Unbeknownst to you, Joe is a convicted felon and was previously married five times. However, Joe told you he’s never been married and doesn’t have a criminal record. A judge would likely agree to annul that marriage due to fraud because no reasonable person, you or anyone else, would have married Joe if they knew those facts about him.

Along with grounds, the state of Texas has established other annulment requirements as set forth in the Texas Family Code. These include not consummating the marriage or living together (cohabiting) after the marriage. While that may sound old fashioned, consummating and cohabiting do show some level of intent to be married, especially following a legal marriage ceremony.

Is it easy to get an annulment in Texas?

The short answer: No. The state of Texas believes strongly in the sanctity of marriage and views marriage as a fundamental constitutional right, as well as one of the most important sacred rites its citizens hold dear.  

It’s not easy to get an annulment in Texas because the courts strongly uphold the state’s beliefs. For Texas, declaring that a marriage never happened is fundamentally wrong in most cases because it whittles away at that sacred right and cheapens the institution of marriage.

As noted above, you’ll also find it difficult to secure an annulment if you consummated the marriage or cohabited with the other party for any period of time after marriage. Much like common law marriage in Texas, when you publicly hold yourself out as husband and wife and you consummate the marriage that typically equates to a legal marriage in Texas.

How soon after marriage do I need to file for an annulment?

Timing is critical and something the court will look at closely when considering an annulment. For example, if your grounds for annulment are the “I got drunk and married in Vegas” grounds and you file for an annulment shortly after you step off the plane back in Texas—within a day or two—you may have a good shot at securing a legal annulment.

On the other hand, say you got drunk and married in Vegas, consummated the marriage, flew back home and lived together for a few weeks, your odds of getting a legal annulment are pretty slim. This is especially true if the other party doesn’t want to get the annulment. 

If you can prove other grounds like fraud your odds will improve, however Texas courts rarely grant annulments. The longer you stay married, consummate your marriage and cohabit—and the more assets you buy together—the more likely it will be that you’ll need to file for divorce instead. 

Annulment vs. divorce—what’s the difference?

The basic difference between annulment and divorce is that an annulment declares that a legal marriage never occurred, while a divorce dissolves a legal marriage and returns both parties to single status with the legal right to marry again. The other big difference is that a Texas divorce allows avenues for division of property, while an annulment does not. 

Texas is a community property state, which means any assets and/or debts accumulated from date of marriage through date of divorce are subject to just and equitable division. If you were never legally married—which an annulment legally declares—you have no avenue or right to make a legal claim on the other party’s property. An annulment also provides no legal avenue to divide property you purchased together.

You can see how the question of property division could make it difficult to get an annulment. First, it’s very difficult to obtain an annulment in Texas if both parties don’t agree to it. Second, when one party has money and property and the other has little or none—but wants a piece of the other party’s property—that party has an incentive (arguably an immoral one) to push for a divorce over an annulment. 

Is it less expensive to get an annulment vs. divorce in Texas?

Only in the unlikely event that the judge agrees to grant the annulment. Some couples try to go the annulment route because the court fees for annulment are less than divorce fees in Texas. However, since Texas has established such strict provisions for annulments, that strategy usually ends up wasting a lot of time and money.

If we believe our client may have valid grounds to seek an annulment we usually recommend filing an annulment alternative divorce. That way if the annulment is unsuccessful, which they usually are in Texas, the client has already filed for divorce, paid the divorce filing fees and avoided paying the fee to file for an annulment. 

In addition, the client only has to go through the process to end the marriage once. If the judge grants the annulment, great. If not, we’ve set the wheels in motion for divorce.

Have questions about annulments in Texas?

If you live in Tarrant County and want to speak with a Fort Worth divorce attorney about your Fort Worth annulment case, contact us. To schedule a confidential case review with our founder, Fort Worth family lawyer Justin Sisemore, call our office at  (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.

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