Frequently Asked Questions About Annulments
What is a Tribunal?
The Tribunal is established by canon law as the judicial office and court system of the Church. The majority of its work involves resolving questions of marital validity; however, the Tribunal works with other sacramental matters, as well. By interpreting and applying the laws of the Church, it protects the rights of all the Christian Faithful.
What is an annulment?
“Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic Church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.
How do I begin the process for a declaration of nullity?
Contact the priest or deacon of your parish; if you are not Catholic, contact a Catholic priest or deacon where you live or in the parish of your future spouse. An appointment will be scheduled at which you will be assisted with the application process. You will be asked to write a thorough history of your former marriage, and to obtain documentary evidence of your baptism, marriage, and divorce. When this has been completed, these materials will be forwarded to the Marriage Tribunal.
When can a date be set to marry?
No parish priest is free to help you schedule a wedding (or a Catholic ritual for persons who have already married in a civil ceremony) until after the entire Declaration of Nullity process is completed, including any counseling requirement. The Tribunal cannot guarantee the exact time period required for this process, nor can anyone presume that the process will lead to a declaration of nullity (an annulment). It is important to note that every marriage is presumed to be valid and binding, unless conclusive proofs to the contrary are produced.
Does a declaration of nullity mean there was no marriage?
No. It means that a marriage that was thought to be valid was in fact not valid according to Church law. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship existed. It simply states that the relationship was missing something that the Church requires for a valid sacramental marriage.
Who may apply for a declaration of nullity?
Either party to the marriage whether Catholic or non-Catholic can submit an application to a priest or deacon and request that their marriage be examined for nullity. However, before the Church can consider a case, it must be clear that there is no possibility for reconciliation between the parties. A civil divorce is considered sufficient proof that the parties cannot be reconciled.
Does a declaration of nullity have any civil effects?
The declaration of nullity does not have any civil effect in the United States on the parties. Rather it frees both parties to receive the sacrament of marriage again in the Catholic Church.
Are the children ever considered illegitimate?
No. A declaration of nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children. Parental obligations remain after a marriage may be declared null.
How long does this entire process take?
Cases vary according to the time it takes to contact persons involved, and the number of cases pending before the Tribunal at any given time. Church law requires that cases not be delayed unnecessarily. The Tribunal of the Diocese of Sioux Falls usually completes a case in twelve months.
Are there any other requirements?
If a declaration of nullity is made, (an annulment is declared), that does not mean a person is free and ready to have a marriage witnessed in the Catholic Church. Some marriage studies bring to light personality issues in one or the other party that caused serious relational problems, and that do not appear to be resolved. If left unattended, these issues can be anticipated to cause similar problems in another marriage. In such a case the judges will require this person to receive appropriate counseling. This must be satisfactorily addressed before a marriage can proceed.
Who can be asked to serve as a Witness?
Family members and lifelong friends along with individuals that were present during the courtship or were in the wedding party are to be named as Witnesses. The Petitioner should seek permission from Witnesses and verify their address before naming them.
Specifically excluded by Church law are confessors. In general, the tribunal does not accept adolescent or adult children of the parties, a current civil spouse or a prospective spouse of either party to offer testimony. The Petitioner should seek permission from Witnesses and verify their address before naming them.
What is the role of a Witness in the marriage nullity case?
A Witness is a person who can provide the tribunal with information about the Petitioner and/or Respondent’s family background, childhood, adolescence, courtship and time leading up to the wedding, the marriage itself, and the reasons for the break-up of the marriage. Your case will be delayed if proper witness testimony is not received.
Is the testimony kept confidential?
All the information gathered in the course of the investigation of a marriage is considered confidential. This information is not made available except as authorized by Church law. Church law states that both parties do have access to the information collected unless the judge determines that access to a particular part of the information may cause serious harm or the witness has requested confidentiality.
If a negative decision is given, can another petition be submitted to the Tribunal?
This is a possibility that requires you to contact and work closely with your priest/deacon and have them consult the Tribunal to determine what is the best way for you to proceed.
Is infidelity a ground for a declaration of nullity?
No. If the couple’s marriage was valid on their wedding day, nothing that happened later in the marriage-not even adultery-nullifies it. That said, infidelity may indicate, but not always, that one of the parties to the marriage entered without the proper intention that the Church requires for a valid sacramental marriage.
Common Misconceptions about Declarations of Nullity
Can you receive the sacraments if you are civilly divorced?
Individuals who are civilly divorced, but not living with a significant other and not remarried outside the Church may receive the sacraments. Individuals who are living with a significant other or divorced and remarried outside the Church are not permitted to receive the sacraments.
Does everyone who applies for a declaration of nullity receive an affirmative decision?
No, Tribunals do give negative decisions. The burden of proving the marriage was invalid rests on the Petitioner, the person who applies for a declaration of nullity. The Catholic Church presumes that every marriage is a valid union, and there must be sufficient evidence for declaring otherwise.
Does my former spouse have to agree to a declaration of nullity?
No, but Church laws states that your former spouse MUST be contacted and informed that you have requested the tribunal to examine your marriage to your former spouse. Both spouses have equal rights in the declaration of nullity process, but that does not mean that the Respondent (your former spouse) has to agree to a declaration of nullity. Your former spouse will be given the opportunity to give testimony as to his/her perspective of the marriage and also name witnesses.
Is a declaration of nullity a 'Catholic Divorce'?
No. A civil divorce and a declaration of nullity from the Church are vastly different things. A declaration of nullity is concerned with the spiritual, religious and covenant elements-the sacrament of marriage and looks to the beginning, the very moment the couple said, “I do.” A civil divorce breaks a marriage. A declaration of nullity is rather a statement that the marriage, as it is understood by Church law, was never valid in the first place. A civil divorce is concerned with the contractual and property realities of marriage only and focuses on the end of a marriage.
Additional Reading on Declarations of Invalidity
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Annulment
USCCB For Your Marriage: Teaching on Annulments
Our Sunday Visitor: Is an annulment just a Catholic Divorce?
Catholic Answers Video: Marriage, Divorce, and Annulment
Knight of Columbus: Preserving the Sanctity of Marriage-The Catholic Teaching on Annulment (PDF)
Catholics Come Home: Divorce & Annulment Questions