Ending a marriage is rarely easy. Divorce can be expensive, messy, and time consuming. An annulment offers an alternative for those who wish to revert back to the life they had before they were married. The legal requirements for obtaining an annulment versus a divorce, however, are much more stringent. In 2015 800,909 couples in the U.S. filed to legally end their marriages and only 22,767 of those couples filed for an annulment.

Read on to learn about the difference between an annulment and a divorce and how an experienced family law attorney can help.

What is an annulment?

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An annulment is a legal procedure that declares a marriage invalid. This differs from divorce, which is the legal ending of a marriage, in that an annulment means that the marriage was never legal to begin with.

There are a few reasons a couple might seek an annulment rather than a divorce. Some couples may want to avoid a divorce for religious reasons. Others might want to avoid the stigma of divorce, preferring never having been married in the first place. Unlike divorce, however, annulments are only granted under certain legal circumstances. A lawyer can help you determine if you have legal grounds for an annulment and help you present the facts to the court.

Common Grounds for Annulment

According to Barry D. Szaferman of law firm Szaferman Lakind, annulments are very rare and are usually more difficult to obtain than a divorce. “Actually, it’s harder to get an annulment than it is to get a divorce under [New York] statute, putting aside the financial factors,” he explains. “Let’s assume there are no financial issues. It’s a short-term marriage and there’s no alimony issue, no child was born, and there were no substantial assets acquired during the relationship. Then the court can grant a no-fault divorce for irreconcilable differences without scrutinizing anything under those circumstances. But if you’re seeking an annulment, the court’s going to look at it more closely.”

An annulment requires proof that the marriage was never legal. Some reasons a couple might qualify for an annulment are:

  • One or both parties is under the age of consent
  • One or both parties were under the influence of alcohol
  • The marriage occurred under fraudulent or coercive circumstances
  • One party lied about their ability or desire to have children
  • One or both parties is already married

Cost of Annulment vs. Divorce

Court costs and handling fees for annulments will vary by state, and can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000, depending on your circumstances. This might sound steep, but the price of annulment is far less than a litigated divorce, which could cost $20,000 or even higher, depending on where you live and the length and complexity of the trial.

In the very rare circumstance in which a couple with children is granted an annulment, custody, child support, and a parenting plan must be agreed upon in the same manner as a divorce proceeding. However, if two people were married long enough to have children, then it is unlikely they will meet the requirements to qualify for an annulment.

Division of property can be a little bit more complicated. One of the biggest differences between an annulment and a divorce is the financial tie two parties have to each other after ending a marriage. In a standard divorce, property is either divided equally or in accordance with a prenuptial agreement. In some states, one party might also be obligated to provide alimony payments to the other.

There are no such financial responsibilities following an annulment since the couple was never legally married to begin with. If there are financial consequences, it’s likely the court will question the validity of the annulment. “Under annulment, there is no equitable distribution,” says Szaferman. “In a divorce, you distribute assets acquired during the marriage. If it’s a relationship during which assets were acquired and you’re seeking to annul what’s deemed to be a marriage in order not to provide assets acquired during the relationship, then the court will be very hesitant to do so unless it’s clearly based on the facts.”

This lack of financial responsibility is one reason why annulments aren't readily granted, and courts will scrutinize—and usually deny—any annulment requests that appear to be veiled attempts at skirting financial obligations.

Contact a Lawyer

Both annulments and divorces are complicated legal proceedings that require expert knowledge of local laws and regulations. Whether you are seeking an annulment or a divorce, it is essential that you find an experienced divorce attorney who can help protect your assets and navigate the process. Few couples qualify for an annulment, but a lawyer can help you understand your options and decide the best route for you and your family.