Annulments vs. Divorce: Understanding the Differences in California

Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP

Most couples heading into marriage believe their relationship will last, but unfortunately, that is not always the case. Some marriages fail after many years, while others end in just a few months. There are many reasons why a marriage might be short-lived. 

Divorce is often seen as the most effective way to end a marriage. However, an annulment may be a better solution, depending on the reason the marriage broke down. 

What Is an Annulment?

A civil annulment, or nullity, is a legal process that “nullifies” marriages entirely. Instead of ending a marriage while acknowledging it existed, an annulment completely erases it. Once an annulment is finalized, the former spouses are treated as if they were never married. 

An annulment is significantly different from divorce in this way. In a standard divorce, the law acknowledges that the couple used to be married, which grants the couple rights regarding their assets, contracts, and obligations. However, the couple’s rights may differ significantly if a marriage is nullified. Some of the most critical differences between and annulment and a divorce affect the following:

  • Residency and waiting periods: Because an annulment releases the couple from a legally invalid marriage, California has no six-month residency requirement or waiting period. A nullity reverses your marriage as soon as the court finishes processing your paperwork. 
  • Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements: These contracts rely on a valid marriage being in place before they can be enforced. If a wedding is annulled, all prenuptial and postnuptial agreements the couple may have signed may be rendered invalid and nonbinding.
  • Assets: California’s community property laws only apply to couples in valid marriages. After an annulment, the marriage legally never existed, so there are no grounds for community property. All assets acquired during the annulled relationship will usually be treated as the separate property of the person who earned it. Any property that has both spouses’ names on it, such as a home or vehicle, will be divided according to standard civil contract law. 
  • Support: Without a marriage, the laws regarding support are complicated. Since the marriage didn’t legally exist, the court may find no support is due. However, if fraud was committed against a person, the court could find the wronged spouse to be a putative spouse. In California, a putative spouse is a person who has a good faith belief that they were married to their partner, but the marriage is later found to be invalid. 

Spousal support is typically only available to parties who were legally married.  However, California law recognizes that putative spouses may still be entitled to some form of support, particularly if they can demonstrate that they were financially disadvantaged as a result of their belief that they were married. To be eligible for spousal support as a putative spouse, several factors will need to be considered, including the length of the putative marriage, the parties’ standard of living during the putative marriage, and the extent to which the putative spouse contributed to the household during the putative marriage. Additionally, in cases where the putative spouse knew or should have known that their marriage was invalid, they may be barred from seeking spousal support. 

If either partner wishes to pursue support, they may file a Marvin Action. 

Child custody and support are the only matters that divorces and annulments always treat the same. Children born in a marriage that is later annulled are still considered legitimate. California law will continue to apply the presumption of parenthood to the non-birthing spouse. Both parents remain eligible for child custody and support as they would if they were divorced. 

Eligibility for Annulment in California

Because annulments exempt couples from many laws intended to protect vulnerable people during divorce, they are only granted in limited circumstances. It is possible to pursue an annulment if your marriage is “void” or “voidable.” 

Void marriages are those that are never considered legally valid. Meanwhile, voidable marriages are those that may be regarded as invalid if they occur under certain circumstances. There are seven generally accepted reasons why a marriage may be void or voidable:

  • Incest: If two people are found to be closely biologically related, the marriage is automatically void and can be annulled at any time.
  • Bigamy: Similarly, if someone knowingly gets remarried while already married to a living spouse, the subsequent marriage is automatically void. If the new marriage occurred after the previous spouse was presumed dead, it isn’t automatically void as long as the previous relationship is ended through divorce as soon as possible.
  • Fraud: If someone is lied to or tricked into getting married, the wedding is voidable. However, the deceived spouse must apply for an annulment within four years of discovering the deception. 
  • Coercion: Similarly, if someone is forced or threatened with harm if they do not get married, the marriage is voidable and eligible for annulment within four years of the date of marriage.
  • Lack of capacity: If someone is not of sound mental capacity, such as if they are drunk or suffering from a mental illness, they cannot consent to getting married. This may be grounds for an annulment.
  • Age: People who get married under the age of 18 without a judge’s permission can request an annulment within four years of turning 18. 
  • Inability to consummate: While this is rarely used as grounds for annulment, if either spouse is physically unable to consummate a marriage, it is voidable and can be annulled. 

How to Pursue an Annulment

California allows people who believe their marriage is not legally valid to request an annulment from the court. It is always necessary to appear before a judge to have your marriage annulled. The judge will hear your case and determine if you are eligible for an annulment under California laws. The person who is asking for the annulment has the burden of proof to show the judge that one or more of the above reasons existed at the time of the marriage. If this burden isn’t satisfied, the judge will not annul the marriage.

The paperwork required to have your marriage annulled varies for each county. If you are considering an annulment or divorce, you should consult with a skilled family law attorney to determine the best course of action. 

Legal Counsel for Couples Pursuing Annulment in California

The knowledgeable attorneys at Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP have decades of experience helping couples end their marriages efficiently. We are available to help you determine if you are eligible for an annulment in California and compare the benefits of annulments vs. divorce. Discover how we can assist you with ending your marriage by scheduling your consultation with our award-winning Bay Area family law firm today.

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