Certain marriages that are unlawful in Massachusetts are subject to annulment by court order. Annulment also describes a church tribunal proceeding that challenges a marriage’s validity under Catholic law. This post reviews the differences between state court civil annulments and religious annulments through the Catholic Church. Additionally, the post examines the differences between annulment and divorce.


Void Marriages

When a Probate and Family Court annuls a marriage, it finds that no legal union ever existed. Marriages of consanguinity or affinity and bigamous unions are prohibited by statute without need of a court order. Neither a man nor a woman can legally marry a parent, stepparent, grandparent, child, grandchild, sibling, aunt, uncle, niece or nephew.


Voidable Marriages

Some marriages are not void, but they are voidable. This means a spouse may petition the court to undo the marriage because of a defect existing at its outset, although the state will allow you to stay married if you so choose. For instance, the Court may invalidate a marriage if one spouse was under age 18 when the ceremony occurred and lacked parental permission. Likewise, annulment is an option if one party is insane or suffering from “idiocy” when entering the marriage, and thereby unable to consent to the union.

One spouse concealing his or her multiple felony convictions from the other spouse or not disclosing to one’s mate an incurable inability to procreate are grounds for annulment. A party who enters into matrimony under threat, duress or coercion may seek to invalidate the union. Likewise, a marriage induced for a fraudulent purpose is voidable.


Annulment Versus Divorce

Like divorce, annulment proceedings commence in the Probate and Family Court. Divorce dissolves a legal union. Annulment determines no marriage between the parties ever existed. A party challenging an annulment claim by law can seek an affirmation of the couple’s marriage from the Probate Court. A spouse, though, has little recourse in preserving a marriage that a spouse seeks to terminate by divorce.

An annulment erases a marriage, leaving the parties with the same legal rights and responsibilities they held before their union was voided. Parties who divorce, however, become “ex-spouses” whose legal status changes. Divorce also involves issues like spousal support and a division of marital property.


Religious Annulment Through the Catholic Church

Just as annulment and divorce are different, so too are civil and religious annulments. Although various forms of religious annulment exist, here we explore religious annulment in the Catholic Church. Following a civil divorce, a religious annulment may be pursued in the Roman Catholic Church. Doing so both removes any shame the former spouse may have over the failed marriage. It also enables the party to remarry in a Catholic Church-sanctioned ceremony.

A Probate and Family Court judge’s order annuls or invalidates a marriage. A religious annulment granted by a Catholic Church tribunal, however, does not legally terminate a marriage. It merely allows the former couple to remarry within the faith.


Catholic Marriage

A valid Catholic marriage involves several components, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. First, the individuals must be unattached and able to marry each other. Also, the parties must be able and willing to consent to the union. They must view this union as a lifetime commitment. Additionally, the couple must be faithful to each other and amenable to having children. Lastly, an authorized Church minister must perform the ceremony in the presence of two witnesses.

A religious annulment doesn’t nullify anything, but rather, asserts that at least one of the above-cited components is lacking to form a valid Catholic marriage. To obtain a religious annulment, the petitioning party submits written testimony concerning the marriage along with a list of individuals capable of commenting about the union. Parties to the proceeding may select a Church advocate to represent them before the tribunal. The Church, in turn, has a defender of the bond who argues for the marriage’s validity.

If the tribunal grants an annulment, the parties generally are able to remarry in the Catholic Church. Rather than take the position of a civil annulment that a marital relationship never existed, a religious annulment merely states one of the components necessary for a valid canonical marriage was absent.


Case Law

The distinction between civil annulments and religious annulments is articulated in a 1928 decision, Cassin v. Cassin. In that case, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) denied a husband’s petition for civil annulment based on his spouse allegedly misrepresenting to him that she was widowed, rather than divorced, when they married. The SJC noted that while the wife’s purported misstatement could invalidate the couple’s union in the eyes of the Church, “it did not go to the essentials of the marriage relation.”

In a 1994 Massachusetts case, Ryan v. Ryan, an attorney enlisted the assistance of his ex-spouse to secure a religious annulment so that he could remarry within the Catholic Church. In turn, he purportedly made an oral promise to leave two-thirds of his estate to his children by the ex-spouse. His former wife’s child sued him for malpractice for allegedly telling his former wife that the oral promise was legally enforceable. The SJC sided with the husband, granting his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the malpractice claim.


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