How Is a Divorce Different Than an Annulment?

By Caryn Kelly
Divorce and annulment are separate legal remedies to end a union between a man and a woman
wedding rings image by Antonio Oquias from

Whether you were married for 20 years or for a few short weeks, deciding whether to get divorced or file for an annulment is a question many people ponder. While divorce can result in complicated issues, such as child support, visitation, alimony and division of property, an annulment simply lets two people walk away from a union that really didn't exist in the first place. Every state has their own divorce and annulment laws, and knowing which one to file for can easily be determined based on a couple's unique situation.


State laws in district, county and family courts work to resolve the issues facing a divorcing couple. A divorce formally ends a marriage, while an annulment proves that a marriage was not legal or valid at the time it was entered into and becomes null and void. A divorce decree is awarded after all issues between a man and wife are resolved and one party is labeled the one at fault. An annulment generally erases the fact that a man and wife were ever married.


Most state family courts distinguish divorce as absolute or limited. One or both spouses in an absolute divorce must prove fault or wrongdoing. A judicial divorce decree officially ends the marriage and transforms husband and wife back to being single. A limited divorce is a permanent separation in which both parties gain the right to live apart but are still legally married. Some states recognize a conversion divorce---a long legal separation that converts to a divorce---after a couple has lived apart for a certain number of years. Annulments are either legal---granted by a court---or religious, granted by a church, and typically occur very early in a marriage.


Grounds for divorce include, but are not limited to, adultery, impotence, bigamy, desertion, alcohol or drug addiction, physical or mental abuse, conviction of a crime or infection by a sexually transmitted disease. Some states grant "no fault" divorces if the spouses have lived apart for a certain number of years or if they have irreconcilable differences. Grounds for annulment include one or both parties being underage and/or getting married without parental consent, fraud or misrepresentation, insanity, inability or unwillingness to consummate the marriage, incest, simultaneous marriage to another person, or intentional concealment of important facts, such as having a serious disease or secret children from another relationship.


Contested divorces can leave a bitter taste in the mouths of both spouses, especially if alimony, child support and visitation issues become complicated and the parties can't agree on the terms. Because an annulment proves that a marriage wasn't legal, the IRS may ask parties to file their returns again if they previously filed them jointly. Both a divorce and an annulment can result in religious complications or even excommunication. Some religions---such as the Roman Catholic Church---don't recognize divorce and disallow remarriage. Once a person gets a legal annulment, she may have to seek a religious annulment so that she can marry again.


Annulments are rarely granted as it can be difficult for a married couple to prove that their marriage was illegal or invalid when they said "I do." Alimony is not granted in annulments, but child support and custody issues can be worked out as children are still considered legitimate in most states. Legal and religious annulments have separate requirements and processes. Annulments are not granted if a man and woman simply change their minds, are unhappy or feel that the other person isn't the right one.