What's the legal difference between annulment and divorce?

When a marriage ends, it's important to take the necessary legal steps to formally terminate the relationship.

by Louise Banks
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

There are two ways to legally end a marriage—annulment and divorce.

Man and woman face each other hands closed on table

What is an annulment?

An annulment is a legal procedure that cancels a marriage. An annulled marriage is erased from a legal perspective, and it declares that the marriage never technically existed and was never valid.

What are the grounds for an annulment?

While each individual state has its own laws regarding grounds for marriage annulment or divorce, certain requirements apply nationwide. An annulment case can be initiated by either party in a marriage. The party initiating the annulment must prove that he or she has the grounds to do so and if it can be proven, the marriage will be considered null and void by the court. The following is a list of common grounds for annulment:

  • Bigamy. Either party was already married to another person at the time of the marriage
  • Forced consent. One of the spouses was forced or threatened into marriage and only entered into it under duress
  • Fraud. One of the spouses agreed to the marriage based on the lies or misrepresentation of the other
  • Marriage prohibited by law. Marriage between parties that based on their familial relationship is considered incestuous
  • Mental illness. Either spouse was mentally ill or emotionally disturbed at the time of the marriage
  • Mental Incapacity. Either spouse was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the marriage and was unable to make informed consent
  • Inability to consummate marriage. Either spouse was physically incapable of having sexual relations or impotent during the marriage
  • Underage marriage. Either spouse was too young to enter into marriage without parental consent or court approval

Depending on your state of residence, a divorce can be much more complicated than an annulment.

Like annulment cases, each state has its own set of laws regarding divorce. In most divorce cases, marital assets are divided and debts are settled. If the marriage has produced children, a divorce proceeding determines custody of the children, visitation rights and spousal and child support issues.

What is the legal definition of divorce?

A divorce, or legal dissolution of a marriage, is the ending of a valid marriage, returning both parties to single status with the ability to remarry.

What is a no-fault divorce?

Each state can have either a no-fault divorce or a fault divorce. A no-fault divorce allows the dissolution of a legal marriage with neither spouse being named the "guilty party" or the cause for the marital break-up.

Many states now offer the no-fault divorce option, a dissolution of a legal marriage in which neither party accepts blame for the marital break-up. In the absence of a guilty party, some states require a waiting period of a legal separation before a no-fault divorce can take place. For this reason, in addition to cases where one spouse wishes to assign blame, some parties seek to expedite the legal process by pursuing a traditional "fault" divorce.

What is a 'fault' divorce?

A "fault" divorce is only granted when one spouse can prove adequate grounds. Like an annulment, these grounds vary from state to state, however, there are some overarching commonalities. These guidelines often include addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling, incurable mental illness, and conviction of a crime. The major grounds for divorce are:

  • Adultery. One or both spouses engages in extramarital relationships with others during the marriage
  • Desertion. One spouse abandons the other, physically and emotionally, for a lengthy period of time
  • Physical/emotional abuse. One spouse subjects the other to physical or violent attacks or emotional or psychological abuse such as abusive language, and threats of physical violence

Your state law and particular situation will determine whether or not your annulment or divorce will be simple or complex. Familiarizing yourself with the laws for your particular state is the best way to learn what your rights are in the case of a marital dissolution, and to help you determine if an annulment or a divorce is right for you.

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About the Author

Louise Banks

I am a professional writer and researcher with published work on a variety of topics including digital marketing, busine… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.