Church Annulment v. Civil Annulment

By James Jennings

Clients often ask me, what is the difference between a civil annulment (a declaration by a state court that a valid civil marriage never existed) and a church annulment (a declaration that sacramental marriage was never created). This tends to confuse people sometimes. The differences are as night is to day. A superior court judge grants a civil annulment as per Ariz.Rev.Stat. §25-301 and the Roman Catholic Church grants a church annulment.

The Roman Catholic Church has its own separate system of annulment. The church does not recognize divorce. Nor does it recognize annulments that are granted by civil courts. Having a civil annulment does not automatically lead to a church annulment. In the eyes of the church, the only way to terminate a marriage (other than by death of one of the parties) is by seeking a Petition of nullity in a canon law church court, which declares the marriage “Null “.

Technically, the church does not dissolve the marriage. Rather it makes a judicial finding that a valid sacramental marriage was not created or entered on the wedding day. This will allow a Catholic to remarry in the church, to receive communion, and to participate in all the other sacraments. Full participation is denied a Catholic who remarries without obtaining a church annulment-even if he or she obtained a civil annulment.

The main ground for a church annulment is defective consent, usually due to “Lack of due discretion” or “Lack of due confidence.” The primary focus of a church court is whether the parties entered the marriage through a free act of will with the intention to except the essential elements of Marriage: permanence, fidelity, and conjugal love that is open to all. Among the factors that can interfere with this intention and are duress, fraud, conditions to one’s consent, and physiological problems such as mental illness.

To initiated church annulment, the Petitioner pays a processing fee (approximately $500) in order to have a formal hearing presided over by a tribunal judge. An advocate presents the case of the Petitioner seeking the annulment. Also present is a “Defender of the Bond “, who monitors the proceeding to ensure that rights are protected and church law properly observed. The hierarchy in Rome has criticized American bishops for allowing too many church annulments. The 119 dioceses of the United States have granted over 50,000 annulments each year. This constitutes 80 percent of the annulments granted by the church worldwide.

So you can see, church annulments and civil annulments are not related in any way. Moreover, I have seen cases where two people have obtained a civil divorce but have later been granted a church annulment. Since there is a separate and distinct separation of church and state powers as granted in the U.S. Constitution this is possible.

For more information on church annulments and procedures contact your local pastor for more information.

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