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" which should not be confused with "religious annulments" - a religious annulment can only be issued by a church or clergy member and has no effect on your marital status as far as the state is concerned.
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 party who is seeking an annulment in Alabama is responsible for proving (meaning, has the burden of proof) that the marriage is invalid.
An important line of cases in Alabama's law holds that a marriage can be annulled if there has been a fraud that goes to "the essence of the marriage relation" (meaning, the heart of the marriage). For instance, if a spouse concealed the intent not to have sexual relations with the other spouse after marriage, or to live separately, then this would be grounds for an annulment because a sexual relationship and living together are central to marriage.
Other examples of marriages that can normally be annulled are those involving an underage spouse; marriages where one spouse has concealed a sexually transmitted disease; and marriages where one spouse has been forced, through duress (physical or emotional compulsion) to marry. This isn't an exhaustive or complete list.
But generally speaking, if a spouse simply lies about education, wealth, age, or personal habits, the courts have not deemed those items weighty enough to go to the essence of marriage, and therefore they aren't considered grounds for annulment in Alabama. The Alabama Supreme Court has even held that if a woman falsely claims she can bear children the husband isn't entitled to an annulment.
Some marriages are "void," or invalid, even before they begin. Void marriages can be annulled, though some lawyers advise a different route. Examples of void marriages include bigamous marriages (where one spouse has legally married two people) or incestuous marriages.
Alabama courts have the power (known as "subject matter jurisdiction") to annul an Alabama marriage even if neither spouse is a resident of Alabama at the time the annulment is filed. This is because annulments are corrective ("equitable") in nature—the theory underlying an annulment is that the marriage record should be corrected to reflect the truth. Even if a spouse has died, an annulment can be sometimes be granted.
It's very important to file the right paperwork if you want an annulment. If you make a mistake and file divorce papers, you're acknowledging that there is a valid marriage and a divorce is necessary. Annulment paperwork has to be submitted to the court instead, because these papers make the specific point that the marriage is not and was never valid.
To obtain an annulment in Alabama, you'll need to complete, at a minimum, a Verified Complaint for Annulment. Check with an experienced lawyer for more information.
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 annulment says that there never really was a marriage, the children born of the "marriage" are made illegitimate. The annulment court, however, has the ability to determine paternity and enter support and custody orders, so this is really a technical distinction without much of a practical impact.
Alabama law specifically provides that if a father and a mother were married to each other and a child is born while the parents were married or within 300 days after the marriage was annulled, then there is a "presumption of paternity." This means that there is a strong legal assumption that the former husband is the father of the child, and if the husband wishes to refute this, he'll have to come up with clear and convincing evidence (very persuasive proof) to show the judge. In fact, if there is a presumption of paternity, it can be difficult for either parent to get a court order allowing genetic testing of father and child.
More importantly, Alabama law provides that if a father has received an underage child into his home and "held out the child as his natural child and established a significant parental relationship with the child" (meaning: treated the child as his own biological child), there is a presumption of paternity.
Finally, and most importantly, Alabama law says that a child who is born to unmarried parents has the same legal rights as a child born to married parents. This means that children born to a couple whose marriage has been annulled are entitled to child support and visitation time with both parents, if visitation is in the child's best interests. The Alabama court that hears the annulment case will make sure to determine parentage and enter custody and child support orders.
However, because the marriage is legally viewed as never having been valid, an Alabama court can't award permanent alimony (spousal support) to either party. The judge may, however, be able to award temporary alimony and attorney fees in an amount sufficient to enable the poorer spouse to continue in litigation.
It is somewhat unclear whether Alabama's courts can divide property (including assets and debts) in an annulment proceeding. There are some court decisions which indicate that at least a partial division is possible, but these decisions are the minority view and they aren't viewed as binding precedent that other courts have to follow. The majority view is that an annulled marriage isn't binding, so there's no property to divide and neither party can be a "surviving spouse" for insurance purposes.
For additional assistance, contact Legal Services of Alabama, which is a statewide nonprofit with nine offices throughout the state. Call LSA at 1-866-456-4995, or apply online.