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Annulment vs. Divorce: What’s the Difference?

4 min read
Feb 08, 2023

Ending a relationship is never easy. Ending a marriage can be especially challenging, not only because of the emotions involved, but also because of the legal processes that can follow.

There are two main ways to formally end a marriage: annulment and divorce. An annulment declares that a marriage was never valid, while a divorce legally concludes a valid marriage. Annulments also require specific circumstances and evidence, while a divorce is more common and easier to attain.1

Let’s dive a little deeper into each.

What is an annulment?

A marriage annulment is a legal ruling that deems a marriage null and void — as if it never happened in the first place. Because annulments effectively erase the marriage, there are fewer concerns when it comes to property and financial divisions, as well as prenuptial agreements.

Because the marriage was never considered legally valid, any prenuptial agreements are also invalid. Plus, neither partner has a right to the other’s personal property or finances the way they would in the case of a divorce.

However, getting the courts to grant an annulment can be difficult. At least one party must believe the marriage shouldn’t have happened, and they have to provide grounds to a judge in order to have it annulled. To qualify for an annulment of marriage, you must meet certain circumstances.

When can you get a marriage annulled?

If you’re looking to have a marriage annulled, the following situations typically qualify:

  • False pretenses: One or both parties were tricked into getting married.
  • Mental incompetence: One or both parties weren’t legally able to make the decision to get married because of a mental disability or being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Bigamy: One or both parties were already married.
  • Underage marriage: One or both parties were under the legal age of consent (typically 18) at the time of the marriage.
  • Incest: The marriage was between two related parties.
  • Concealment: One or both parties failed to disclose important details about themselves and their lives prior to the marriage, like having a child, criminal conviction, or serious illness.
  • Failure to consummate the marriage: One or both parties are unable to be physically intimate in the marriage.

Each of these scenarios creates legal grounds for a marriage to be annulled and must be proven in court.

What is a divorce?

A divorce declares a marriage legally over. Because a divorce recognizes the marriage as valid, the process is much more involved.

For example, if a prenuptial agreement was filed, the divorce must follow what’s outlined within it. Additionally, each partner may have a legal claim to any personal property or financial resources owned by the other, unless otherwise outlined in a prenup.

Reasons for divorce

Unlike annulments, divorces can occur for any number of reasons. In the United States, all states recognize “no-fault” divorces.2 This means there doesn’t need to be one specific incident or circumstance that doomed the marriage. Instead, many couples cite “irreconcilable differences” as the reason they didn’t work out. However, reasons for fault-based divorces can include:3

  • Adultery/infidelity: One spouse cheats on the other.
  • Marital conflict: There’s abuse and/or incessant arguing.
  • Imprisonment: One or both spouses are convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail or prison time.
  • Lack of intimacy: The couple becomes unable to be physically intimate with each other.
  • Incurable insanity: One or both parties are deemed insane by a qualified doctor.

How do annulments and divorces handle children?

When it comes to children and parental rights, annulments and divorces handle these matters very differently.

Annulments and children

In the event of an annulment where children are involved, it’s as if the parents were never married. That means both parents can individually seek custody or work out an agreement for shared custody, much like they would if the child had been born to unmarried parents in the first place.

Divorces and children

A divorce comes with stricter rules and regulations regarding the dissolution of the relationship, especially if children are involved. Usually, the parents must agree on a custody arrangement ahead of time, or a judge will decide what’s best for the children and determine custody during divorce proceedings.4

Divorce vs. annulment: The bottom line

While annulments and divorces both end a relationship, the largest difference between the two is that a divorce legally ends a marriage, while an annulment claims the marriage was never valid.

A divorce is often the most common course of action, as there are fewer constrictions on what qualifies, and every state in the United States recognizes no-fault divorces. An annulment, on the other hand, requires specific reasoning for a judge to be able to grant it.

If you’re not sure which option is right for you, consult a divorce attorney or family lawyer to understand what best suits your specific circumstances. If you’re enrolled in a legal insurance policy through your employer you may also have access to lawyers who can offer you legal advice.

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1 “Annulment vs. Divorce: What Are the Differences?” Very Well Mind, 2022

2 “no-fault divorce,” Legal Information Institute, 2020

3 “fault divorces,” Legal Information Institute, 2021

4 “Understanding Child Custody | How Custody Decisions Are Made,”

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