Services: Common Questions about Annulments
As canonists, we get questions all the time about the annulment
process. At Canon Law Professionals, we have compiled the most common
questions we get asked, to provide some basic answers to the most
commonly expressed concerns. These answers are not
comprehensive, but are meant to be a starting point for those thinking
about filing a case. When working with CLP, we spend time with our
clients to make sure that all of their questions and concerns regarding
their annulment process are answered to their satisfaction.
1.Is a divorced person
automatically excommunicated from the Church?
2.How is an annulment different
from a civil divorce?
3.Do only Catholics need
annulments? Do only Catholic marriages need to
4.Are there different types of
5.Is receiving a declaration of
6.Why does the Church charge for
7.Does “who you
know” or “how much you
contribute” make any difference in how quickly the process
takes or in the ultimate outcome of the case?
8.Why do I need a canonical
9.If I receive an annulment,
will my children be illegitimate?
10.Does my ex-spouse have to
agree or participate for an annulment to
be granted? What is my ex-spouse is not Catholic?
11.What if my ex-spouse strenuously objects to an annulment being
granted? What if I strenuously object to having my marriage declared
null? Does the court ever issue a negative decision?
12.If my former spouse
petitions for and receives an annulment, does it
allow me to remarry as well, or do I have to also go through the
13.I was married for over 20 years and have children from this
marriage. Will I be able to get my marriage annulled?
14.Why do I need witnesses? Who
should I choose?
15.Who is going to judge my
case? Are all the judges going to be
16.Is the annulment process
going to be similar to my divorce process?
Will I have to be in a courtroom with my former spouse?
17.What if either my spouse or
I have had more than one marriage? Do
all my marriages “count”?
18.Are there too many
annulments granted in the United States?
1.Is a divorced person
automatically excommunicated from the Church?
No. Obtaining a civil divorce is a function of the civil law and civil
courts, and has little relevance in canon law. The church recognizes
that a civil divorce may be a necessary step to determine civil, legal,
custodial and financial matters resulting from the civil termination of
a marriage. Thus a divorced Catholic is not
“excommunicated.” As long as you have not
remarried, you are free to receive the sacraments within the Church.
Without having received a declaration of nullity, the Church does not
recognize the civil divorce granted by the state, and still considers
you married to your spouse – even if you are no longer living
with him or her. Consequently, without a canonical declaration of
nullity you are not free to remarry. If you do remarry civilly or
outside the Church, you are required to refrain from receiving the
sacraments until you get your situation regularized.
2.How is an
annulment different from a civil divorce?
The more correct term for an "annulment" is a "decree of nullity." This
decree states that the marriage has been thoroughly investigated and
found to be lacking in the essential characteristics of a Christian
sacramental union from the time of consent. The time of consent is at
one’s wedding when the parties both consented to
marry. The decree of nullity certifies that despite the fact
that there was a wedding, and despite the fact that the parties
believed that they were married, due to various reasons a valid
sacramental bond never existed. This is different from a divorce, which
is a legal recognition that there was an existing and valid legal
marital contract, which the legal divorce now dissolves.
Canonically, if the sacramental bond did not exist, the marriage in
question can be declared ecclesiastically non-binding. Thus, according
to canon law, there never was a marriage, because it was null or
non-existent from the beginning.
Catholics need annulments? Do only Catholic marriages need to be
No and no. In the regular course, non-Catholics only need an annulment
if they desire to marry a Catholic. But if a non-Catholic has been
married to another non-Catholic, and that person now wants to marry a
Catholic, then the non-Catholic is going to need an annulment before
the Catholic can be validly married in the Church.
Only a Catholic is bound to marry according to the form prescribed by
the Catholic Church (i.e. before a Catholic priest or deacon and at
least two additional witnesses) unless dispensed from this requirement
by the bishop or his delegate. However, the Church recognizes the marriage of two non-Catholics, or a Catholic who has received a dispensation from form and a non-Catholic, whether they marry in their own church/or non-Christian place of worship, another church or in a civil ceremony (justice of the peace) as long as the ceremony is valid according to civil law. From the perspective of
the Catholic Church, therefore, non-Catholics are considered to be
validly married persons unless the former spouse has died or the
marriage has been declared null by the Catholic Church. Since
the Church has the right to determine who may be married in the
Catholic Church, it can make a judgment on the validity of the marriage
of two non-Catholics if one requests this in order that he or she might
be able to marry a Catholic in the Catholic Church.
different types of annulment cases?
There are different types of annulment cases, depending on the
circumstances of the marriage. Some are easier and quicker than others.
Documentary cases, which include Absence of Form and Ligamen cases, are
the simplest type of case and usually take only a few weeks to
process. The documentary cases are fairly easy because they
can be proven simply with the presentation of the correct
documentation. However, these processes are only able to be used under
very specific circumstances.
Formal cases require an extensive autobiographical essay, witness
testimony, an interview, and possible review by an expert counselor, so
they tend to be more difficult and often can take a year to eighteen
months to complete once they have been filed. Cases that must
be processed in Rome, such as Favor of the Faith and Non-Consummated
Marriages, also take a considerable amount of time to prepare, in
addition to the time the case takes for Rome to adjudicate. Canon Law
Professionals can help you determine what the most appropriate type of
case to file, and what documentation you will need to best pursue your
receiving a declaration of nullity expensive?
We often hear that the one thing preventing a person from getting an
annulment is the cost. However, in most dioceses the cost for an
annulment is quite reasonable, and if you have difficulty affording the
cost, they will make arrangements to help you. In fact one should not
ever be turned away from applying for an annulment because of his or
her inability to pay the fee.
the Church charge for annulment cases?
Processing annulment cases is an expensive endeavor for dioceses.
Tribunals must hire competent staff, have secretarial help, and use
computers and offices, and these things must be paid for. Thus, for
most tribunals, the fee paid to the tribunal is not a donation to the
it is a fee for services rendered. Some tribunals also
charge for the services of a psychological expert’s review of
the case if it is required by the law. However, some dioceses in
the United States have financial arrangements that allow them not to
charge any fees. In these places the diocese is able to fully subsidize its
“who you know” or “how much you
contribute” make any difference in how quickly the process
takes or in the ultimate outcome of the case?
In the United States, it is an “urban myth” that
one can call on one’s church connections to make
one’s case move faster, or that a person can
“help” their case by giving a large donation to
their parish or diocese. Not only is this belief false, but it calls
into question the integrity of the process and of all the judges,
defenders and advocates associated with the Tribunal. Cases are
processed in the order in which they are received by the tribunal, and
the length of time to judge a case is only affected by such things as
the complexity of the case, the promptness of witness replies, and the
necessity for an expert’s evaluation. This holds true whether
or not the parties are Catholic.
8.Why do I
need a canonical procurator/advocate?
The easy answer is because canon law requires you to have a
procurator/advocate. Like a divorce, this is a legal procedure where to
be able to navigate the process you need to have someone helping you
that is familiar with canon law. Most dioceses have a list of advocates
that they usually allow you to use. These people usually do not have
degrees in canon law, but have been trained by the diocese in marriage
law so that they can assist the parties in going through the annulment
process. Many times one’s pastor or associate can act as your
advocate. For simple marriage cases, most of the time the diocesan
advocate’s help will be sufficient.
However, if you 1) have a long marriage, or 2) have unusual
circumstances surrounding your marriage and divorce, or 3) have
petitioned for an annulment before but received a negative, or 4) you
are a Respondent who objects to receiving an annulment, you need to
consider hiring a professional canonist to help you. At CLP, our
procurator/advocates all have degrees in canon law and have worked
extensively with marriage tribunals. We understand the grounds and the
procedures, and can help you effectively present your case.
What if you like your assigned advocate and don’t necessarily
want someone else to represent you during your annulment process, but
just want some extra help crafting your initial autobiographical essay?
CLP can do this as well, by simply working with you behind the scenes
to put together a comprehensive autobiographical essay or, depending on
your diocese, help you to answer the raft of questions given to you by
receive an annulment, will my children be illegitimate?
This is the number one question asked regarding annulments, and it is
very worrisome to many parents. They are often deeply concerned that a
declaration of nullity will affect the legitimate status of their
children should an annulment be granted. This should not be a concern.
At the time of the child’s birth, they were born of a legal
marriage in civil law and a putative marriage in canon law (which means
that everyone thought in good faith that the marriage was valid).
So at the moment of the child's birth, he or she was civilly
and canonically legitimate. An annulment DOES NOT
retroactively affect a child's legitimacy.
ex-spouse have to agree or participate for an annulment to be granted?
What is my ex-spouse is not Catholic and wants nothing to do with the
process? What if I do not know where my former spouse is living?
It’s not true that both spouses have to agree to petition to
receive a Declaration of Nullity. Tribunal judges can hear the case,
and grant an annulment even if the ex-spouse is against the idea of an
annulment, or does not want to participate at all in the process. While
it is always better for the case to have both parties as active
participants, the case can proceed without the ex-spouse’s
consent or participation. However, they will be notified by the
tribunal that the case is proceeding, and will be given every
opportunity to respond and participate.
On occasion, a respondent cannot be found. The case can still proceed,
and the respondent in that case is declared legally absent from the
case. However, you will likely be required to make a good faith effort
to provide a current address for your former spouse, or at the very
least show what efforts you made in trying to locate him or her.
On occasion there are situations in which a petitioner has a legal
reason, such as a civil restraining order, to not want the other party
to know of their whereabouts or to give them any information about
themselves. In these circumstances, Canon Law Professionals can work
with the tribunal to explore legal methods of protecting our
client’s safety while fulfilling the requirements of the law.
my ex-spouse strenuously objects to an annulment being granted? What if
I strenuously object to having my marriage declared null? Does the
court ever issue a negative decision?
Contrary to popular belief, tribunals do give negative decisions. While
cases that make it to the local tribunals are generally granted, there
are times when clearly the marriage is in fact valid, despite the
existence of a civil divorce. This more often happens with longer
marriages, but it is completely dependent on the circumstances of the
marriage. While CLP can guarantee the highest quality of service and
representation, we cannot guarantee the outcome of your case.
There are many times when a client believes themselves to be in a valid
marriage, and does not believe that the granting of a declaration of
nullity is accurate or appropriate. As with all of our cases, our
canonists work with our clients to help them understand the process,
and to help our clients accurately and completely present their side of
the story so that the tribunal can discover the truth of the matter.
former spouse petitions for and receives an annulment, does it allow me
to remarry as well, or do I have to also go through the process?
A declaration of nullity declares the marriage invalid, so once it is
declared invalid both parties are free to marry. It is not
possible for one party to be free while the other is still bound by the
former marriage. However, in some cases a
“condition”, called a Monitum, is put on one or
both parties. A Monitum usually calls for some action to be
performed by the party before he or she is allowed to remarry in the
Catholic Church. This Monitum usually consists of some form of
counseling or a requirement that a person meet his or her child support
obligations before they can remarry. These conditions may be
placed on only one of the parties instead of affecting both parties
married for over 20 years and have children from this marriage. Will I
be able to get my marriage annulled?
Yes, if the case supports a finding of nullity. The tribunal examines
the intentions and capability of the parties AT THE TIME OF CONSENT
(the wedding) to determine if the Church should declare a marriage
invalid. What then happened over the years of marriage is
examined by the Court to further illustrate the capability or
intentions of the person at the time of consent, but in and of
themselves do not prove or disprove nullity. So, while the length of
the marriage may strengthen the tribunal’s presumption that
the marriage was valid, having a long marriage does not necessarily
mean that the marriage is in fact valid. There are a number
of grounds for invalidity recognized by Church law, and if any of these
are applicable and proven, the fact that the marriage was consummated
or that the marriage was long will not prevent the granting of the
decree of nullity.
Many people ask how the Church can grant a declaration of nullity to a
person when the other spouse appears to be an innocent party in the
breakup of the marriage. Think of a doubles tennis match.
Even if one player is Venus Williams giving 100% effort, the team will
lose the match if the other party is incapable of playing tennis, or
not mature enough to play at that level, or intends to play another
game altogether. A marriage can be null even if one spouse is
giving 100% to the marriage if the other spouse is not capable of
fulfilling their own obligations in this marriage.
Finally, the fact that the parties have children does not affect
whether nullity is going to be granted. Children are not only born of
valid marriages. So, the fact that one has children with
one’s spouse only means that you both were capable of having
children, not that you were capable of a valid marriage.
14.Why do I
need witnesses? Who should I choose?
Canon law requires that the testimony of the parties be corroborated by
witnesses since the rights of two persons, the sanctity of marriage and
the good of the community are all involved. The witnesses are
asked about the backgrounds and personalities of the parties and about
the marriage, though the questionnaires are usually not as extensive as
those of the parties. Sometimes they are asked to be interviewed by the
tribunal. Witnesses do not need to be experts. They just need to be
people, generally family or friends, who knew you or your former spouse
before or during the marriage and the problems of the marriage. Both
the petitioner and the respondent are asked to provide witnesses for
going to judge my case? Are all the judges going to be priests?
The people who judge marriage cases are professional canonists who have
degrees in canon law. There is usually a panel of three judges judging
marriage cases. Of the three judges, two must be clerics, however in
many tribunals one of the clerics is often a married deacon. The third
judge is often a layperson, either a Religious or a married or
unmarried layperson. So, in most tribunals, cases are not only judged
by priests, but also by deacons and laypersons who are or who have been
annulment process going to be similar to my divorce process? Will I
have to be in a courtroom with my former spouse?
The members of the diocesan Tribunal are caring individuals who try to
be sensitive to the feelings of the persons involved in this
process. There is no cross-examination by a hostile lawyer or
the need for you and your former spouse to be at the tribunal at the
same time. Both parties are offered the opportunity to give testimony
by way of a questionnaire and/or a personal interview, but they are not
asked to confront each other personally. Tribunals use personal
interviews in order to come to an understanding of the circumstances of
the relationship, not to place guilt or blame for the breakdown of the
marriage. Most tribunals make a concerted effort to make the atmosphere
of the interview one of concern and gentleness.
either my spouse or I have had more than one marriage? Do all my
In the event that there are multiple marriages, each marriage must be
examined by the tribunal on its own merits to determine its validity.
No marriage is exempt from scrutiny, regardless of its
circumstances. The appropriate petition should be filed for
each marriage depending on the applicable type of case, and all
documentation must be obtained for each marriage. The
existence of multiple marriages and the complexity it presents is one
of the reasons that one should consider hiring a canon lawyer. Having a
professional canonist to help you sort out what types of cases should
be filed and how the multiple marriages should be addressed in
one’s autobiographical essay helps your case to run more
efficiently and smoothly.
there too many annulments granted in the United States?
Many people claim that the Catholic Church in the United States grants
too many annulments. There are various reasons for the high
percentage of annulments granted in this country, and it is not that
the Church is being “soft on divorce”.
First, most cases are first filtered through pastors and advocates
before ever reaching the Tribunal. If the marriage is clearly
valid, most times it the case stops at that level and never is actually
presented to the Tribunal. Once at the Tribunal, a petitioner may chose
to withdraw their case before it concludes rather than allowing a weak
case to proceed to judgment. These cases never make it into the final
numbers of annulments recorded. Also, in more developed countries like
the United States, tribunals have the resources and staff necessary to
process cases, whereas many other countries outside of Europe, North
America, and Australia do not have the resources or education necessary
to staff a Tribunal, much less process cases. That is why the
numbers of annulments are so high when compared to the rest of the
world. Finally, given the statistic that 50% of marriages in the US end
in divorce (including Catholic marriages), the percentages of Catholics
filing for decrees of nullity is actually quite small.