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Annulment in Pennsylvania


“My spouse and I just got divorced. I wish that we didn’t have to end our marriage that way. How did you and your ex do it?” “Oh, we got an annulment.” That conversation might sound familiar to more than a few people. The ex claiming to have gotten an annulment might continue to explain saying that they were able to get an annulment because 1) They were not married very long or 2) they never consummated their marriage. Well, that person was not telling the whole story because, in Pennsylvania, neither of those two reasons will get you an annulment. 

To qualify for an annulment in Pennsylvania, the law is very clear. Was either party under 16 and the court had not expressly authorized the marriage? Was either party under 18 and did not have that party’s parent’s or guardian’s consent and the marriage was not ratified as soon as both became 18 years of age? Was either party under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the marriage? Was either party, without the knowledge and acceptance of the other party, naturally impotent before the marriage and still so? Was either party forced into the marriage through outright coercion or duress (an example would be the famous shotgun we see in the movies) or tricked into it (fraud of some type)? Was either party determined to be mentally incompetent at the time? Were the two people too closely related by blood? Was either party already in a marriage at the time of the new marriage?

The foregoing describes marriages which are either voidable or prohibited by law. Moreover, if a spouse discovers that an annulment is in fact possible, the law requires that action on the annulment be taken forthwith, typically within 60 days of the marriage or discovering the existence of the reason for an annulment. Why must one act quickly? Our Commonwealth has a goal of promoting marital harmony (and in people staying married, believe it or not). There would not be much “harmony” in a marriage where a spouse discovers that an annulment is legally available and, instead of actively and immediately pursuing the annulment in court, that spouse chooses to hold the grounds for annulment over the other spouse’s head to control their behavior. In other words, by failing to forthwith commence the annulment action in court, that spouse will be deemed to have condoned and accepted whatever it was that would have entitled that spouse to an annulment. It’s a classic case of use it or lose it.

And a spouse who may be entitled to an annulment under Pennsylvania law may accept the situation and decide to stay married. There is really no particular reason for that marriage to fail anymore than another… provided the reason for the annulment is really something that the couple can put behind them permanently.

So, let us get back to that ex-spouse who claimed to have gotten an annulment based upon being married a very short time or not having consummated the marriage. What really happened? Once that couple found out that they did not qualify for an annulment under Pennsylvania law and they still wanted not to be married to one another anymore, they quietly got a divorce. Now, you might say what about the filing then the granting of the divorce appearing in the newspaper or even word of it being spread by someone working in the courthouse who found out about it? It is permissible to file a simple, uncontested, low-cost, no-fault divorce in a county far from where the couple resides and/or in a county where the newspaper doe not print that gossip. And gossip is exactly what it is. Newspapers print divorce filings and grantings only to sell newspapers. There is no legal requirement, under Pennsylvania law, that such items be printed in a newspaper of general circulation or in any other media. What about that gossiping courthouse worker? Well, such people have no duty to keep such things confidential. And it is a very small world, is it not? Want someone to be sure to pass along a secret? Just swear them to secrecy. Even people we trust with our lives may utter a confidence without thinking, thereby letting the “cat out of the bag”.

Getting back to our secretly divorcing couple, once the divorce is final, they go to their house of religion (church or other) and apply for an ecclesiastical or religious annulment. They jump through the required hoops their religion imposes to annul the marriage, make whatever donation might be “requested” and, voila, the marriage is really and truly annulled, just not by the state of Pennsylvania’s court and law, which had already ended the marriage by means of a quietly handled divorce. The ex-spouses then, whenever the subject of how they ended their marriage comes up in polite conversation, simply tell the relatively harmless half-truth of their annulment without mentioning that they first had to get a divorce and then got the marriage annulled religiously, not in court.

It all comes out in the wash, as they say. The marriage is over and our couple gets to say it was by annulment and that, apparently, allows them to feel somehow a little better about a marriage they may have considered a simple mistaken decision. But their marriage first ended in a Pennsylvania court under civil law and when one thinks about it, that really was not all that bad. All Pennsylvania’s no-fault divorce law required was that one spouse file the divorce and simply state to the court in the filed documents that the marriage was “irretrievably broken” without the need to say who broke it or how, without any oral testimony and without any courtroom appearance. No more explaining to the Master in Divorce with a Court Reporter assiduously taking everything down that you say what your spouse did to make you not want to be married anymore. It is, literally, no one’s fault. That is what and all “no-fault” means. Handled properly, it would cost only a couple of hundred dollars, would be filed in a county court quite some distance away where the local newspaper did not even print the existence of the divorce. The only people who would know would be the lawyer who prepared and filed the documents, the few people in the distant courthouse whom the divorcing couple did not even know, the couple themselves and the people whom the couple chose to tell about it. That’s pretty darn simple, easy and private, is it not?

An annulment in Pennsylvania is what the legal community refers to as a “legal fiction”. The legal result of an annulment is, very technically, that the marriage never really happened. It is a “fiction” because, as all parties concerned know, there was and still a marriage license, a ceremony with the couple, witnesses and officiant all present, and usually but not necessarily, a reception with anywhere from a handful to hundreds of guests, most of whom gave the couple a wedding present (and those presents are not about to evaporate and disappear) and the wedding night and, perhaps, a honeymoon. Time will eventually dim the memories. Neither an annulment nor a divorce can magically dissolve them.