Ending a marriage can be an emotionally difficult time for everyone involved. This is especially true when one party is being particularly difficult, combative, or resentful. One of the purposes of family law is to provide stability during the transition. Although many people seeking to end a marriage are generally familiar with divorce proceedings, annulments are not as commonly discussed or understood. Depending on your unique circumstances, an annulment may be appropriate.
What are Annulments?
In New Jersey, annulments are legal proceedings that revoke a marriage. Unlike a divorce, an annulment is based on a finding that the marriage should not have taken place at all. If the court agrees to grant an annulment, the marriage is removed from legal records and the law views the marriage as if it never happened. To understand why and when annulments are appropriate, it is important to start with the requirements of a legally binding marriage in New Jersey.
New Jersey Requirements for a Legal Marriage
Under the New Jersey statute on requirements for a valid marriage (NJSA 2A:34-1), parties to a marriage must be: 1) at least 18 years old; 2) mentally competent; 3) free of a prior marriage and; 4) free to marry. A person is mentally capable of entering a marriage when they are “sane,” meaning that they have “the capacity to understand the nature and effect of the marriage contract and to assume the duties and obligations of marriage.” Additionally, under New Jersey law, a party is free of prior marriage when their previous spouse died while they were married or their previous marriage(s) legally ended in divorce or annulment. Lastly, parties must be free to marry one another, meaning that they are not related.
Therefore, annulments are designed to correct what are called “impediments” to a valid marriage. Impediments are those very limited situations where a person was underage at the time of marriage, never had the legal capacity to enter into a marriage, or was otherwise not free to marry.
When Are Annulments Appropriate?
In New Jersey, the Superior Court may annul a marriage if the court finds that there are “good and sufficient reasons why [the] parties should not be joined in matrimony.” In the state of New Jersey, an annulment is appropriate in 6 different situations:
- Incestual relationships where the spouses are related within the familial degrees prohibited by law.
- At the time of marriage, either spouse was a minor at the time of marriage and has not sought to ratify (affirm) the marriage since turning 18.
- Bigamous or polygamous relationships where at the time of marriage, either spouse was not free to marry due to being married to a different spouse, living with a partner in a civil union, or being in a domestic partnership.
- At the time of marriage, either spouse lacked the mental capacity to marry due to issues such as a mental health condition, substance abuse, intoxication, duress, or fraud.
- At the time of marriage, either spouse was physically or incurably impotent (sterile) and did not disclose this to the other spouse.
- For any other reason that the Superior Court feels is appropriate to prevent an unfair result.
In instances where an individual doubts that they entered their marriage on valid, legal grounds, it is best to seek the advice and counsel of a qualified family law attorney who can evaluate the unique characteristics of the marriage.
Contested vs. Uncontested Annulments
Under New Jersey Law, an annulment can be uncontested or contested. An annulment is uncontested when both spouses agree to the annulment without argument. For example, in very rare circumstances, this could occur in situations where spouses learn they are related and wish to annul the marriage. In this instance, the family law judge would simply enter an order of nullity without conducting a formal hearing.
In other instances, however, one of the spouses may contest the grounds for annulment and the court will have to conduct a hearing on the matter. At contested annulment hearings, parties often present evidence and testify. For example, one spouse may petition for an annulment on the basis that she was unaware of her spouse's infertility, while he may testify that they talked about it at length before the marriage. If the court agrees to grant an annulment after a hearing, the parties will receive an “order of nullity,” declaring the marriage void.
What Happens To Minor Children and Assets in an Annulment Proceeding?
Although an annulment views the marriage as though it never legally existed, if the couple had children, they will still be considered “legitimate.” This means that paternity will not need to be established again. In cases where the couple still has minor children, the court can make decisions regarding custody, visitation, and child support.
A court can also award alimony in annulment proceedings, although property distribution will differ from divorce proceedings. Under New Jersey law, property at issue (the house or the car, for instance) in annulment proceedings typically “follows the title.” This means that property will remain in the possession of the spouse whose name is on the title. If the property is jointly titled, meaning both spouses' names are on the title, then the court can divide the property equally.
Although ending a marriage can represent a fresh start, annulment proceedings in New Jersey can be complex and have far-reaching impacts. If you believe you have grounds for an annulment, you should speak to an experienced family law attorney immediately. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is dedicated to finding solutions and has helped many families navigate transitions after ending their marriages. Please contact the Lento Law Firm for a consultation at 888-535-3686 or request a consultation online.