The topic of annulments, properly called a declaration of nullity, is one that seems to cause a lot of confusion for those involved.
One of the biggest sources of confusion seems to stem from the word itself. The USCCB notes that annulment is an unfortunate term because in reality, nothing is made null through the process.
What is an annulment?
A declaration of nullity is issued by a tribunal — 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. Unlike civil divorce, an annulment does not erase something that was already there, but rather it is a declaration that a valid marriage was never actually brought about on the wedding day. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship existed between the couple, or that the spouses truly loved one another. (www.foryourmarriage.org)
What are the elements for a valid marriage?
A valid Catholic marriage results from five elements: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they freely exchange their consent; (3) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (4) they intend the good of each other; and (5) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by Church authority. If any of these elements are deemed invalid, an annulment may be granted.
Valerie Maxineau, moderator of the Diocese of Charleston Tribunal Chancery, said Catholic Tribunals in the United States granted 17,738 declarations of nullity in the Ordinary process in 2010. Diocesan figures are not available.
It is an arduous process that is difficult on many levels, Maxineau said, but the Tribunal is there to help as much as possible.
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions:
How do I begin the process?
Contact your church for information and forms. Maxineau said parishes have trained personnel who serve as case assistants, provide face-to-face meetings and act as liaisons with the Tribunal for instructions.
How long does the process take?
It usually takes 12-14 months in this diocese, Maxineau said. It is time-consuming because of the many steps and the built-in waiting period for each one.
If I do not plan to remarry, do I need a declaration of nullity?
Some people find that writing out their testimony helps them understand what went wrong and why. They gain insights into themselves. Others say the process allowed them to tell their whole story for the first time to someone willing to listen. Many find the process helped them let go of their former relationship, heal their hurts, and move on with their lives. Also, a person cannot know today if they might want to marry in the future when crucial witnesses may be deceased or their own memories may have dimmed.
Why do I need witnesses?
Maxineau said it is not a question of belief or disbelief. Canon law requires that testimony be corroborated by witnesses since the rights of two persons, the sanctity of marriage and the good of the community are involved.
If a marriage is annulled, are the children considered illegitimate?
No. A declaration of nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children, since the child’s mother and father were presumed to be married at the time that the child was born. Legitimacy depends on civil law.
Can a couple that’s been married for many years present a case?
Yes. The tribunal process examines the events leading up to, and at the time of, the wedding ceremony, in an effort to determine whether what was required for a valid marriage was ever brought about. While a long marriage does provide evidence that a couple had some capacity for a life-long commitment, it does not prove or disprove the existence of a valid marriage bond.
Why does an intended spouse who is divorced but not Catholic need an annulment before marrying in the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church respects all marriages and presumes they are valid. Whether a couple is Protestant, Jewish, or even non-believing, the marriage is considered binding for life. The Church requires a declaration of nullity to establish that an essential element was missing in that previous union preventing it from being a valid marriage.
This can be a difficult and emotional issue. If the intended spouse comes from a faith tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage, it may be hard for them to understand why they must go through the Catholic tribunal process. Couples in this situation may find it helpful to talk with a priest or deacon.
If I have not received an annulment yet, can I set the date for my new marriage?
You should not set a date until the annulment has been finalized. First, the petition may not be granted. Second, even if the petition is eventually granted, there may be unexpected delays in the process. Many pastors will not allow the couple to set a date until the petition is officially approved.
How much does it cost?
Fees associated with the process vary. The cost in the diocese is $900, but Maxineau said they are sensitive to family situations and extenuating circumstances.
“We will never refuse to take a case because someone cannot pay,” she said. The moderator added that the process is expensive all around, costing the diocese $2,000 or more for every case.
Do both parties have to go through the process?
No. A declaration of nullity declares the marriage invalid, so once it is declared invalid both parties are free to marry.
Are there too many annulments granted?
Maxineau said 95 percent of petitions that go the whole way through the process are granted, but many petitions are withdrawn. Most cases are first filtered through pastors and advocates, so if the marriage is clearly valid, the case will stop at that level and never be presented to the Tribunal. Once at the Tribunal, a petitioner can still 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.
Questions and answers for this article were compiled from Valerie Maxineau, moderator of the Diocese of Charleston Tribunal Chancery, canon law sources and foryourmarriage.org.
Steps to a Declaration of Nullity
- Preliminary Questionnaire, Formal Statement and Witness List: the preliminary questionnaire and formal statement cover the facts of the marriage and in-depth questions to find grounds for your case. The witness list will provide us the names and addresses for the witnesses who will testify through correspondence.
- Funding, Petition, Mandate, and Acceptance: the Tribunal will send you a payment agreement, a formal petition for the Diocese of Charleston’s Tribunal to hear your case, and a mandate to designate your advocate. Once competence has been established, they will accept your case.
- Citation of the Respondent: the respondent will be contacted and asked to offer testimony and witnesses.
- Joinder of issues: will tell you what grounds the case is being heard under.
- Citation of the witnesses: witnesses will be contacted and asked to answer a questionnaire.
- Publication of the acts: the petitioner and respondent will be offered the possibility to view the acts of the case (meaning all the testimony).
- Conclusion of the case: no more testimony or changes in the case will be accepted.
- Hearing Process: the case will be reviewed by the advocates, the defender of the bond, and then the judge will make his decision and the sentence will be available to the parties.
- Second Instance: the case goes to the court of appeals for a confirmation of the decision.