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 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.
In California, there are a number of possible "grounds," or reasons, that a judge might grant a request to annul a marriage:
The person who is asking for the annulment has the burden of proof to show the judge that one or more of the above reasons existed at the time of the marriage. If this burden isn't satisfied, the judge will not annul the marriage.
The process for obtaining an annulment is very similar to getting a divorce. The California court system has detailed, step-by-step instructions for how to request, and oppose, an annulment. To learn about how to file for an annulment and what forms have to be completed, click here. If you have been served with annulment papers and want to learn how to respond, click here. If you're looking for the forms you'll need to initiate or respond to an annulment, click here.
It's critical to understand that in California, there's a deadline (known in legal terminology as a "statute of limitations") which sets a hard-and-fast time limit on when annulments can be filed. The deadline depends on the reason why you want the annulment:
Because of these legally complex statutes of limitations, and because there are serious financial and custodial implications involved in an annulment, it's very 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. If this happens, you'll have to ask the judge to establish paternity of your children. After that, child support, visitation, and permanent custody can be decided too.
But when it comes to paternity, California has several "presumptions of paternity" (meaning, very strong legal assumptions) that cover children from an annulled marriage and help establish that although the marriage may have been invalid, the former husband is in fact the father of the children. Thus, California law does not pose an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to paternity.
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. So in California, couples going through an annulment must separate their own property, including both assets and debts. The California community property laws that protect married couples will no longer protect you when your marriage is annulled.
Similarly, neither party can receive spousal support or survivorship benefits, like inheritances and retirement interests, from the other.
Because the financial and familial stakes are so high when it comes to annulment, you should take the time to discuss your options with an experienced California family law attorney. You may ultimately decide that another option, like divorce, works better for you and your family.
Check out the self-help glossary if you come across any legal terms that you don't fully understand.
If you need one-on-one help, consult the quick reference guide to California self-help centers and family law facilitators, call the number, and make an appointment at the location nearest to you.
Or check out the Campaign for Justice's website, which links to 95 nonprofit organizations that provide free or low-cost legal services to needy Californians.