CHARLESTON, S.C. - The topic of annulments, properly called a declaration of nullity, is one that seems to cause a lot of confusion for those involved.
One of the biggest sources of confusion seems to stem from the word "annulment" itself. In reality, nothing is made null through the process, notes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
What follows is a Q-and-A on the process based on information from Valerie Maxineau, moderator of the Tribunal Chancery of the Diocese of Charleston, and material from canon law sources. Information on the process is also available at the USCCB website www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulments.
Q: What is an annulment?
A declaration of nullity is issued by a tribunal -- Catholic Church court -- that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union. Unlike civil divorce, an annulment does not erase something that was already there, but rather it is a declaration that a valid marriage was never actually brought about on the wedding day. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship existed between the couple, or that the spouses truly loved one another.
Q: What are the elements for a valid marriage?
A: A valid Catholic marriage results from five elements: 1) the spouses are free to marry; 2) they freely exchange their consent; 3) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (4) they intend the good of each other; and (5) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by church authority. If any of these elements are deemed invalid, an annulment may be granted.
Maxineau said Catholic tribunals in the United States granted 17,738 declarations of nullity in the ordinary process in 2010, according to the latest figures available.
Q: How do I begin the annulment process?
A: Contact your parish for information and forms. Maxineau said every parish has trained personnel who serve as case assistants, providing face-to-face meetings and acting as liaison with tribunal for step-by-step instructions.
Q: How long does the process take?
A: It usually takes 12 to 14 months in this diocese, Maxineau said. It is time-consuming because of the many steps and the built-in waiting period for each one.
Q: If I do not plan to remarry, do I need a declaration of nullity?
A: Some people find that writing out their testimony helps them understand what went wrong and why. They gain insights into themselves. Others say the process allowed them to tell their whole story for the first time to someone willing to listen. Many find the process helped them let go of their former relationship, heal their hurts, and move on with their lives. Also, a person cannot know today if they might want to marry in the future when crucial witnesses may be deceased or their own memories may have dimmed.
Q: Why do I need witnesses?
A: Canon law requires that testimony be corroborated by witnesses since the rights of two persons, the sanctity of marriage and the good of the community are involved.
Q: If a marriage is annulled, are the children considered illegitimate?
A: No. "Although believed by a surprising number of people, it is a myth that a church annulment renders the children of that marriage illegitimate. It does not," wrote Father Kenneth Doyle in a recent "Question Corner," his column for Catholic News Service. "Legitimacy is a legal term. It means that the father of a child is known and that the parents were legally married to each other at the time of the child's birth."
Q: Can a couple that's been married for many years present a case?
A: Yes. The tribunal process examines the events leading up to, and at the time of, the wedding ceremony, in an effort to determine whether what was required for a valid marriage was ever brought about. While a long marriage does provide evidence that a couple had some capacity for a life-long commitment, it does not prove or disprove the existence of a valid marriage bond.
Q: Why does an intended spouse who is divorced but not Catholic need an annulment before marrying in the Catholic Church?
A: The Catholic Church respects all marriages and presumes they are valid. Whether a couple is Protestant, Jewish, or even nonbelieving, the marriage is considered binding for life. The Catholic Church requires a declaration of nullity to establish that an essential element was missing in that previous union preventing it from being a valid marriage.
This can be a difficult and emotional issue. If the intended spouse comes from a faith tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage, it may be hard for them to understand why they must go through the Catholic tribunal process. Couples in this situation may find it helpful to talk with a priest or deacon. The act of going through the process could also be considered a sign of great love.
Q: If I have not received an annulment yet, can I set the date for my new marriage?
A: You should not set a date until the annulment has been finalized. First, the petition may not be granted. Second, even if the petition is eventually granted, there may be unexpected delays in the process. Priests and parishes are prohibited from scheduling a wedding until an annulment has been granted, according to CNS' Father Doyle. "Marriage tribunals typically resist any attempt to jump a case forward -- justifiably, because that would not be fair to the other couples waiting in line -- but it may be possible for your parish priest to see what stage your case is at, so that you would have a rough idea as to the timing."
Q: How much does it cost?
A: Fees associated with the process vary. A persistent myth is that the process costs thousands of dollars, but the truth is that no tribunal anywhere in the world asks for "thousands of dollars" for an annulment. Most U.S. tribunals charge between $200 and $1,000 for a formal case depending on how much the diocese subsidizes the work of the tribunal. Fees are typically payable over time, and may be reduced or even waived in cases of financial difficulty. Some U.S. dioceses have eliminated fees for tribunal services. The Detroit Archdiocese dropped its fees in the 1980s. The Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, ended the fees in 2000. This past June 2013, the Cleveland Diocese became the most recent U.S. diocese to do so. No one is ever denied the service of a tribunal because of inability to pay.
In the Diocese of Charleston, the cost for a person seeking an annulment is $900, and costs the diocese $2,000 or more for every case, according to Maxineau. But "we will never refuse to take a case because someone cannot pay," she said.
Q: Do both parties have to go through process?
A: No. A declaration of nullity declares the marriage invalid, so once it is declared invalid both parties are free to marry.
Q: Are there too many annulments granted?
A: Maxineau said 95 percent of petitions that go the whole way through the process are granted, but many petitions are withdrawn. Most cases are first filtered through pastors and advocates, so if the marriage is clearly valid, the case will stop at that level and never be presented to a tribunal. Once at a tribunal, a petitioner can still withdraw his or her case before it concludes rather than allowing a weak case to proceed to judgment. These cases never make it into the final numbers of annulments recorded.
Taylor is a reporter at The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.