The Basics of Annulment in D.C.

Wondering if you can get an annulment? Learn about the grounds for an annulment and how to get one in D.C.

Overview of Annulment

The concept of annulment is often misunderstood because popular culture and religion have presented differing and often inaccurate views  of  what an annulment means in terms of family law. This article focuses on "civil annulments" not "religious annulments," which can only be granted 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.

Grounds for an Annulment in the District of Columbia

Annulments are very rare in the District of Columbia. Nonetheless, there are a number of "grounds," or reasons, why you can ask a court to annul your marriage:

  • The spouses are closely related (legally known as “consanguinity,” or a blood relationship, or “affinity,” meaning a close family relationship). If you are involved in this kind of relationship, your marriage is "void ab initio," which means it was never valid from the start. You don't need any kind of  court ruling  to end this marriage because in the eyes of the law, it was never a marriage. However, it might be wise to obtain an annulment anyway, to clarify that the marriage was void.
  • One spouse is already legally married to someone else at the time of the second marriage (“bigamy”). This kind of marriage is also  void ab initio, but it may still be advisable to ask a court for an annulment.
  • One spouse was mentally incompetent at the time of the marriage ceremony and didn't have the capacity, or ability, to consent to marriage.
  • One or both spouses consented to the marriage only because of force or fraud caused by another person.
  • At the time of the marriage, one of the spouses was under the age of 16, and after the marriage, the younger spouse did not voluntarily continue to live with the older spouse.

How Do I Get an Annulment?

It's necessary to get a court order to officially annul a marriage. If you are currently living in the District of Columbia or if that's where you were married, you can file for annulment in D.C.

Different people have the ability to ask for annulments depending on the facts of the case. For instance, if an underage person marries and is still under the age of 18, the minor's parents or guardian can ask the court for an annulment. Or if the annulment is sought because one of the spouses suffered from a mental impairment, then that person's legal guardian or conservator can go to court to request an annulment.

It's also important to note that D.C.  law  takes the concept of "fault" into account in deciding whether to grant an annulment. Put simply, this means that the spouse who wronged the other can't turn around and ask for an annulment. Instead, the spouse who is at fault has to file for divorce.

For example, if Spouse A forced Spouse B to marry by threatening Spouse B with violence, then Spouse A forfeits the right to ask for an annulment on grounds of force or duress. Spouse A could still ask for a divorce, but only Spouse B, the party who was wronged, can ask for an annulment.

If you're thinking about asking for an annulment, it's a good idea to talk to a lawyer first. In addition to the custodial and child support issues you'll face if you have kids, there could be very serious financial ramifications for you when the court divides assets and debts. You will also want to discuss any possible statutes of limitations with an attorney to make sure you don’t miss any deadlines.

If you are the complainant (the party seeking an annulment) and you win your case, you should know that your marriage will be deemed invalid from the moment you married, not from the date of the judge’s order. You will be restored to the status of a single person and you can marry again.

The D.C. Bar Organization has prepared documents that you can use to represent yourself in an annulment proceeding.  This link  will take you to a page of fill-in PDF forms; scroll down to the section entitled "Annulment" and you will find a complaint for annulment of marriage (to be used by the party seeking the annulment), a consent answer (to be used if you were served with the complaint and agree with the contents), a contested answer and counterclaim (to be used if you were served with the complaint and want to dispute all or part of it) as well as attachments to be completed for child custody, child support, alimony, and marital debt and property.

Effect of an Annulment

Some people worry that if their marriage is declared void, the paternity of their children will be called into question. This is not an issue in D.C., because the law creates a presumption of paternity that applies in annulment cases. A "presumption of paternity" is a strong legal assumption that a man is the biological father of a child. A man trying to overcome a presumption of paternity may face an uphill battle, depending on the facts. He would have to prove to the judge, by "clear and convincing evidence" (very strong proof) that he isn't the father.

For instance, D.C.  law  provides that if a child is born within 300 days after a couple stops living together due to an annulment, the husband is presumed to be the father of the child. Similarly, if a child is born after the father and mother attempt to marry, and the marriage is later annulled or found to be  void ab initio, then the husband is presumed to be the father. In short, D.C.  law  protects the paternity of children who were born as the product of an annulled marriage.

The superior court, which hears annulment cases, has the power to decide custody, visitation, and child support at the same time as it decides the annulment.

Most state courts don’t have statutory authority to award alimony or divide property or debts as part of an annulment case. The logic behind this is that there cannot be a marital estate if there wasn't a valid marriage. But the District of Columbia is different and allows the superior court to divide marital property and debt equitably (fairly), similar to the outcome in a divorce.

Resources

The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia has multiple office locations. Their hours and offices are listed  here.

If you need help with an annulment, you should visit one of these offices for an initial screening to see if you qualify for assistance.

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