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Annulments - Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Tribunal?
What is marriage?
What is an annulment?
What are the reasons for granting an annulment?
Who may apply for an annulment?
How Does The Process Begin?

What does the process entail?
Why Are Witnesses Important?
What Role Does The Former Spouse Have?
Who Are Advocates?
Who Will Read What Is Submitted?
How long Is there a fee?
Are there any civil effects from a Church annulment?
What about the legitimacy of children?
What Are The Effects of a Declaration of Invalidity?
Can I still receive the sacraments?

What is a Tribunal?
A Tribunal is a church court established by the local Bishop to carry out a ministry of justice. Cases are judged which concern the vindication of a person's rights, the declaration of legal facts, and perhaps the imposition of penalties. In all of its dealings, the Tribunal is guided by The Code of Canon Law and the jurisprudence of the Church's highest tribunals. Above all, the Tribunal is guided by the supreme law of the Church, which is the salvation of souls.

The majority of cases judged by the Tribunal deal with a declaration concerning the validity of marriage (annulment).

What is marriage?
According to the teaching of Christ and the Church, marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life. By its nature, marriage is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. Christ the Lord has raised marriage between two baptized persons to the dignity of a sacrament. This partnership requires that the two truly become one, that they are faithful to one another, and that they maintain their irrevocable union until death.

The dignity and importance of marriage is recognized in all cultures throughout the world. The Church teaches that the well being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.

Marriage comes about by the consent of the parties, which is exchanged in a manner recognized by the state and the Church. Therefore, even though a priest or deacon serves as the official witness at a Catholic wedding, it is really the bride and groom who are the ministers of the sacrament. In this sense they really marry themselves when each one gives his or her consent and receives the consent of the other.

According to Church law, once a man and woman enter marriage by legitimately manifesting their consent, they are presumed by the law itself to be married. Consequently, the validity of a marriage is to be upheld until the contrary is proven.

What is an annulment?
The term annulment refers to an official declaration by the appropriate Tribunal of the Catholic Church that what appeared to be a marriage was, in fact, not a true marriage that is binding upon the parties for life. An annulment, or declaration of nullity as it is correctly named in Church law, does not deny that a relationship really existed. It would be silly to think (or for the Church to declare) that there was no wedding or that a marriage never existed. A declaration of nullity means that the relationship fell short of at least one of the essential elements for a binding union.

An annulment is not a Church divorce. A civil divorce decree breaks a marriage bond. In "no-fault" divorces, the parties get divorced by agreeing to revoke their consent. According to the teaching of Christ and the Church, once the parties legitimately and validly exchange their consent, they cannot revoke it later on at their own will. An annulment is a declaration from the Tribunal that the marriage was invalid from the moment of the wedding. The reasons for granting an annulment are reviewed next.

What are the reasons for granting an annulment?
A declaration that there was no bond of marriage must be based on grounds consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and recognized in Canon Law. Grounds arise from the nature of marriage as a partnership of the whole of life freely consented to by both parties. Grounds can be found in the failure of one or both parties to understand the essential obligations of marriage. Grounds may be found also in a lack of freedom to give consent or in the lack of ability to assume the obligations of marriage.

A declaration of nullity can be issued for a number of reasons that are established by Church law.

The required form of marriage was somehow radically flawed in the celebration of the wedding. For Catholics, it is required that they be married in the presence of a duly authorized priest and two witnesses according to the rite of marriage.

There was some impediment to a valid marriage. For example, a person who was previously married (whose spouse is still living and there was no annulment of that marriage) is not free to marry. There are other impediments in Church law. In each case, the Tribunal will check for the existence of any such impediments at the time of the wedding.

The consent of either one or both of the parties was invalid because:
a person lacks the sufficient use of reason;
a person suffers from a grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning the essential rights and duties of marriage that are to be mutually given and accepted;
a person was ignorant about what marriage entails;
a person is in error about the person he or she is marrying;
a person is in error about a quality of the person he or she is marrying;
a person was deceived by fraud which was perpetrated to obtain consent;
a person is in error about the unity, indissolubility or sacramental dignity of marriage;
a person totally simulates consent, excluding marriage as the Church understands it by substituting his or her own idea of such a union;
a person partially simulates consent by excluding either the good of permanence, the good of fidelity, or the good of children;
a person marries with some condition;
a person is compelled to enter marriage due to some force or fear inflicted from outside.

Who may apply for an annulment?
Anyone who has been previously married, whether baptized or non-baptized, Catholic or non-Catholic, may petition for a declaration of nullity. All previously married persons are eligible to apply because the Church presumes that every marriage, whether it involves Catholics or non-Catholics, is valid and binding once it has been entered into by a man and woman. Thus, even a non-Catholic who was previously married and now wishes to be married to a Catholic must petition for a declaration of nullity.

Before the Tribunal accepts a petition, a person must provide a certified copy of the decree that proves that a civil divorce has already been granted.

The one who applies for the declaration of nullity is referred to as the Petitioner. The other party to the marriage is referred to as the Respondent.
An annulment petition must be submitted to the Tribunal that has jurisdiction over the marriage in question. The Tribunal also may have jurisdiction if the Petitioner and Respondent live in the territory of our diocese.

How Does The Process Begin?
A canonical investigation into the validity of marriage can occur only when there is no hope of reconciliation and after a final decree of civil divorce or dissolution The process for a formal declaration of invalidity is initiated by the submission of a petition and preliminary questionnaire, obtained from the Office of the Tribunal through the parish. A person (Petitioner) who believes he or she may have grounds for a declaration of invalidity of marriage should first consult with a parish priest, deacon or other parish minister who has been trained and delegated to prepare marriage cases.

After an initial evaluation of the case history and a review of the documents submitted, the case is assigned to a Tribunal Judge, who assesses whether the Tribunal of the Archdiocese has jurisdiction and determines whether potential grounds exist to warrant opening the case to trial If so, the former spouse (Respondent) is notified of the petition and invited to participate in the search for the facts and the truth of the relationship. Each party is asked to name qualified witnesses who can corroborate the statements of the parties. Since this is a canonical-legal process, proofs and evidence are required.

What does the process entail?
The work of the Tribunal is governed by procedures determined in Church law. These procedures are intended to safeguard the integrity of marriage and to protect the rights of all parties involved. Here is a summary of the steps involved in a formal marriage nullity case.

The completed petition for together with a written account of the history of the marital relationship must be submitted to the Tribunal by the one who seeks a declaration of nullity. The petition must be accompanied by the following documents: a recent certificate of Baptism, a certified copy of the marriage license application and record of the marriage, and a certified copy of the civil divorce decree. An initial fee is to be submitted with the petition. The Petitioner will be asked for additional testimony later in the process.

Once accepted, the petition is put on the Tribunal docket. Each case is handled in its turn. The Tribunal sends a citation to both the Petitioner and Respondent. The Respondent has the right to participate in the process and be heard.

Both parties have the right to present any documents and to name witnesses to corroborate the facts of the case.

Under the direction of the Judge, both parties may review documents and each other's testimony and the testimony of witnesses. This takes place before the investigation is concluded and the case is decided. Only the Petitioner, Respondent, and Tribunal staff have access to the case material. Otherwise the information is confidential.

A Defender of the Bond reviews every case before a decision is rendered. The Defender is responsible for presenting the reasons that argue in favor of a valid marriage.

The Judges carefully study the documents and testimony that have been submitted. They also examine the written arguments of the Defender of the Bond, and the Advocates (if they have been presented). In some cases the Judges may consult with a psychological expert. If the Judges reach moral certitude that invalidity has been proven according to the law and jurisprudence of the Church, then the Judges issue a declaration of nullity in writing and this decision is shared with the parties. If the Judges fail to reach moral certitude, then the validity of the bond stands.

Both parties have the right to appeal the Judge's decision. In some cases the Tribunal of the Roman Rota may hear the appeal.

Even if there is no appeal, the case must be reviewed by the Metropolitan Tribunal. A case is not considered to be final until the decision has been ratified or confirmed by the Appellate Court.
In some cases, the Tribunal will order that before either of the parties marries again, they must undergo a professional evaluation or special marriage preparation. This is to make sure that past problems will not be repeated again.

Why Are Witnesses Important?
Church law requires that a case be proven by documents and the supporting testimony of witnesses. Witnesses are necessary for the Tribunal to gain a deeper understanding of the background and dating experience of both parties, the wedding and marriage itself, and the reasons for its breakdown. Anyone who has known the parties well or for a long time may be a witness The best witnesses are those who have known the former spouses since the time of courtship. Typically, parents, brothers and sisters, childhood neighbors or other relatives and friends make good witnesses. A minimum of two witnesses will be contacted by mail and asked to give their personal observations. It may be necessary to follow up the testimony of the parties and witnesses by a personal interview. Parties should invite the cooperation of potential witnesses before they are contacted by the Tribunal.

What Role Does The Former Spouse Have?
A former spouse must be contacted and given the opportunity to present his or her views of the marriage as well as to introduce witnesses. This is required by the law of the Church. It is therefore necessary to have a current address. If a current address in unavailable, then the last known address and/or the address of a family member should be provided. Justice demands a good faith effort to locate the former spouse. If a former spouse is said to be unlocatable, the Tribunal will ask for evidence of this good faith effort to locate him or her.

Since both spouses are equal partners in the marriage, both enjoy the same rights in cases which may result in a declaration of invalidity. Even in cases where the former spouse is not Catholic and may not be interested in the Church's process, the party has rights under Church law. The former spouse does not have the option of preventing the process. If the former spouse ignores the citation (summons), the process continues without his or her cooperation. The spouses are never scheduled to appear at the same time. What Are The Rights of the Respondent?

The law recognizes the right of the Respondent to participate fully in the process if he or she so chooses. Statements may be made either by completing a written questionnaire or by appearing at the Tribunal for a personal interview. The testimony of the Respondent will always be of assistance to the Court in reaching a decision.

The Respondent is entitled to know the grounds for nullity, has the right to appoint an Advocate, the right to name witnesses and to know the names of the Petitioner’s witnesses, the right to reply to pleadings and observations, the right to know the evidence used in the decision, the conclusions and reasons for the judgment, and the right to appeal a judgment.

Who Are Advocates?
Advocates are trained Catholic priests, religious sisters and lay persons who represent the parties at the Tribunal. They are to assist in the timely and orderly preparation of the case, see that the rights of the parties are fully honored, and provide canonical guidance and pastoral care as the party goes through the process. Additionally, they may write briefs and accompany the Petitioner/Respondent to the hearing. The priest who witnessed the wedding may not serve as the Advocate; his assistance may be more valuable in the capacity of a witness. To expedite the processing of the case, the Advocates are usually named by the Court. However, a party may designate an Advocate of his or her choosing from the list of Advocates approved by the bishop.

Who Will Read What Is Submitted?
All material relative to the nullity process is treated confidentially as required by the Church's law. Only those who have a right to the information (the parties, their Advocates and the Tribunal officials) are permitted to review it for the purposes expressed in canon law. All are bound by oath to keep all information confidential and to use it only for the express purpose of resolving the case.

How long does it take?
The cooperation of the Petitioner, Respondent, and witnesses, and the quality of their testimony have an effect on the length of time it takes to investigate a case. The number of cases pending and the requirement that every case be reviewed by an Appellate Tribunal also impact the time each case takes to complete. The Tribunal is required by Church law to give a specified amount of time to various steps in the process.

No two cases are alike. According to Church law a case is supposed to be completed within 18 months. Many cases are completed in less than 18 months. Some may take longer. There is no way that any member of the Tribunal staff can predict when a given case will be finished.

It is important to note that Church law stipulates that no new marriage may be scheduled in any Catholic parish until the annulment process is complete. Those who participate in the annulment process are asked to cooperate fully and please be patient.

Is there a fee?
Annulment fees vary between dioceses The average fee for a formal annulment case is around $400.00 to $500.00. Fees for other types of cases may be only $25.00. The annulment fees cover approximately 1/3 of the actual cost per case. The remainder of the Tribunal budget is subsidized by the people of the diocese through the parish assessments and the annual stewardship campaign.

The Petitioner receives notice of the fee at the beginning of the case. The fee may be paid in installments. It is important to know that the progress of one's case or the eventual decision of the Tribunal is never affected when someone is unable to pay the fee.

Are there any civil effects from a Church annulment?
In the United States there are no civil effects from a declaration of nullity issued by the Tribunal. It does not affect in any manner the legitimacy or custody of children, property rights, inheritance rights, or names. These issues are under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. The main effect of a declaration of nullity is to determine whether a person is free to enter marriage again in the Church, and thus be admitted to full sacramental participation.

What about the legitimacy of children?
Children born of a marriage that might later be declared invalid are, of course, considered legitimate. Some people think that a declaration of nullity makes the children illegitimate because they think the declaration means the marriage never existed. Both of these views are incorrect. A declaration of nullity does not say that the marriage never existed.

A declaration of nullity has no effect on the status of children. They are regarded as having the same dignity as any person, since all are created in the image and likeness of God.

What Are The Effects of a Declaration of Invalidity?
For a divorced Catholic, a declaration of invalidity would allow a new marriage in the Church, provided that the other party to the new marriage is free to enter a Catholic marriage. For a divorced and remarried Catholic, a declaration of invalidity would allow full participation in the sacramental life of the Church, including a new marriage in the Church on the same condition as just mentioned. For members of other religious traditions, a declaration of invalidity will enable the Catholic partner to celebrate the marriage in the Catholic Church and to participate fully in the sacramental life of the faith community.

If a Tribunal declares a marriage invalid it does not mean that the marriage never occurred, nor does it imply guilt. It is impossible to deny or “annul” a historical reality. A declaration of invalidity means that a marriage lacked at least one of the essential elements of a binding union. It shows that a marriage presumed valid was in fact invalid as the Church understands marriage.
A declaration of invalidity does not render children illegitimate nor does it have any civil meaning or effect in the United States. All children remain fully legitimate according to both civil and Church law. It has no effect on the rights of property ownership, inheritance, custody, visitation of children, child support or similar legal matters. This also means that it does not absolve parties from their moral and legal obligations to the spouses and children of former unions.

Can I still receive the sacraments?
A civil divorce does not prohibit a Catholic from receiving the sacraments. However, a Catholic who remarries after divorce without a declaration of nullity (and a Catholic who is married to someone with a previous marriage that has not been declared null) is not to receive the sacraments. The Church encourages a Catholic in such circumstances to continue practicing the faith by remaining members of a parish and by regular attendance at Sunday liturgy and other parish functions. It should be noted that a Catholic who has divorced and remarried is not excommunicated.

Further guidance concerning the reception of the sacraments after divorce can be sought from a parish priest.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved