Annulment is a frequently misunderstood legal concept, because popular culture and religion have presented differing and often inaccurate views of what an annulment is in terms of family law. This article focuses only on "civil annulments," not "religious annulments," which can only be issued by a church or clergy member.
Annulments and divorces are similar in the sense that they make a determination about marital status. But the vital difference between them is that divorce ends an existing, valid marriage, whereas annulment simply declares that what everyone thought was a marriage was never actually a marriage at all. In the eyes of the law, an annulled marriage never really existed.
The grounds for obtaining an annulment in Arkansas are very narrow. There are only four possible reasons a court might grant an annulment:
Arkansas courts interpret the annulment statutes quite strictly. For instance, if a person who married while underage later applies for an annulment on the basis of youth, but does so after reaching the age of majority, it is possible that a judge will reject the claim. If you want an annulment, you must be prepared to prove your claim.
Absent special circumstances, annulment actions ("complaints for annulment") must be filed in the circuit court of the county where the "complainant" (the person seeking the annulment, also known as the "plaintiff") resides and has lived for at least 60 days. Other papers may also be necessary, and both parties must follow rules for service of process.
An Arkansas judge can declare a marriage null and void and annul it by court order. Both parties will be summoned to appear before the court, which will hear testimony, consider the written submissions and the law, and issue an order. Even if the "defendant" (party opposing the annulment) doesn't answer the complaint or appear at the court hearings, the plaintiff must show up and present enough evidence to support the annulment request. This may mean that the plaintiff has to testify.
Because there are serious financial and custodial implications involved in an annulment, it's important to talk to a lawyer before proceeding.
Some people worry that if their marriage is annulled, the paternity of their children will be called into question. This is technically true. Because an annulled marriage has no validity, it's as though the children born of the "marriage" were born to single parents. However, this is really a technical distinction without much of a practical impact because Arkansas law requires the court which decides the annulment to also decide custody and financial support of the children, despite the fact that the annulled marriage was never valid.
In most states, because an annulled marriage is legally viewed as never having been valid, courts don't have the authority to award alimony or divide property or debts. The logic behind this is that there cannot be a marital estate if there wasn't a valid marriage. Therefore, in Arkansas, couples going through an annulment must separate their own property, including both assets and debts.
Neither party can receive permanent alimony or receive survivorship benefits from the other party after the annulment is completed. It may be possible to obtain temporary alimony while the annulment is pending; this is something that should be discussed with an experienced Arkansas lawyer.
Arkansas Legal Services, which assists elderly and low-income Arkansans throughout the state, has prepared a fact sheet on annulment. For more assistance, call their helpline at 1-800-952-9243, but be sure to review their hours of operation (listed by county) and financial eligibility guidelines here first.