Reviewed by Amanda Cuthbert, Stowe Family Law

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If your marriage has broken down, you may prefer the idea of getting an annulment rather than a divorce. But you can only get an annulment in limited circumstances where the marriage is legally invalid

Annulment or divorce?

It's common to think of annulment as an alternative to divorce, sometimes preferred for religious reasons. But in UK law, there isn't generally a choice. You can only get an annulment if your marriage meets the conditions for being declared void or voidable (see below), which are completely different from the normal grounds for divorce.

It's worth noting that Catholics who want to have their marriage annulled for religious reasons do this by applying to the church tribunal. As part of this process, the tribunal generally requires the couple to have obtained a civil divorce (decree absolute) first. So the divorce and the religious annulment are two separate issues.

Grounds for marriage annulment

A marriage is void from the outset if:

  • You and your spouse are too closely related. You cannot marry your child, stepchild, niece, nephew, or grandchild. You also cannot marry someone who was married to (or in a civil partnership with) your parent or grandparent.
  • One of you was under 16 when you married.
  • One of you was already married (or in a civil partnership) when you married.

If a marriage is void, legally it was never valid. But you should still apply for an annulment to avoid the potential for future disputes, and to make sure you can later remarry if you wish.

You can also apply for an annulment if your marriage is voidable:

  • The marriage was not consummated (ie you have not had sex since the wedding). This does not apply for same sex marriages.
  • You didn't properly consent to the marriage, for example because you were forced or didn't understand what you were doing.
  • You were suffering from a mental disorder that meant you were unfit for marriage.
  • Your spouse was suffering from a communicable venereal disease when you married.
  • Your wife was pregnant by another man when you married.
  • Your spouse had a sex change before you married and you were not aware, or your spouse has had a sex change since the marriage.

A voidable marriage remains valid until it is annulled.

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Getting a marriage annulment

The procedure for getting an annulment is similar to the divorce process. Instead of filing a divorce petition, you file a nullity petition. Provided your spouse agrees, you then apply for a decree nisi and finally a decree of nullity.

If your spouse does not agree to the annulment, you should take legal advice. A contested annulment can be expensive and difficult (for example, if you need to provide medical evidence of non-consummation or prove that it was a forced marriage).

You can apply for an annulment at any stage after the marriage (unlike a divorce, where you need to have been married for at least a year). In the case of a voidable marriage, you may need to apply within three years of the marriage.

Like a divorce, you should also agree a financial settlement and childcare arrangements for any children.

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