The Difference Between Divorce and Annulment

Divorce and annulment are the two options through which couples can legally end their marriage. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably but refer to very different processes, especially in terms of the purpose, circumstances, and results. This article reviews the difference between divorce and annulment and what it means for couples in the United States.

Divorce Vs. Annulment

The main contrast between a divorce and annulment lies in the results: A divorce terminates a legally valid marriage while an annulment ends a marriage by declaring it invalid. Here are the definitions to help you better understand this concept:

Divorce: Refers to the legal dissolution and termination of a legally valid marriage, leaving the spouses single and able to remarry. It may include post-divorce obligations.

Annulment: Refers to a legal ruling that doesn’t terminate but erases a marriage by establishing that it was not legally valid. It is not to be confused with a religious annulment that has no effect whatsoever on a civil marriage.

Reasons for Pursuing the Divorce Vs. Annulment

Couples often decide to end a marriage because they no longer wish to be in the union. Divorces, which are more common, are sought by couples who accept that the marriage exists but must end. An annulment, on the other hand, covers cases where the couple believes the marriage should never have existed. Here is a review of reasons people go through these processes:


A divorce can be fault or no-fault. A no-fault divorce does not require that the spouses prove fault to file for the process. In fact, most people who file for this type of divorce just cite “irreconcilable differences.” A fault divorce, in contrast, must include fault and is often filed on grounds such as abandonment, domestic abuse, and adultery.


To file for an annulment, one or both spouses must establish that they believe the marriage should never have happened in the first place. This is common under grounds such as undisclosed facts like a serious illness or secret child, or amid illegalities like incest.

Generally, the reasons for having a marriage annulled differ across jurisdictions, but the most common include when one or both spouses:

  • Could not make an informed decision to marry due to intoxication or a mental disability.
  • Were tricked or forced to marry
  • Were married elsewhere at the time of marriage (bigamy)
  • Were below the legal age to marry
  • Are related (incest)
  • Failed to disclose a serious issue like criminal history or drug dependency

Every state has conditions that must be met before an annulment is granted. These conditions will vary across jurisdictions, so you should consult your state laws when filing for an annulment.

Length of the Marriage (Divorce Vs. Annulment)

You have probably seen this scenario countless times in movies: Two people get married and after a week decide that they are not good for each other, then immediately get the marriage annulled. This portrayal is what most people believe: you can end any brief marriage with an annulment.

However, this is not true as the precursor to an annulment is the invalidity of a marriage, not its duration. A marriage must meet the conditions described in the previous section to qualify for an annulment. Otherwise, the couple will have to go through a divorce even if they have been married for days.

After the Divorce or Annulment

Both a divorce and annulment leave the ex-spouses free to remain single or remarry. After a divorce, the ex-spouses must acknowledge that the marriage happened and may even owe each other obligations like alimony, property distribution, and child support. However, ex-spouses in an annulment may not owe each other anything as the process declares that the marriage never legally happened.

Religious Marital Status

Some religions have rules and regulations about divorce and annulment. In some cases, couples may go through a religious annulment, which considers the marriage ended within the religious community but has no bearing on the civil marriage. Other religions will also have rules about remarrying.

While the law may consider your marital status as dictated by your religion, it is not a consideration when determining legal matters like child support and alimony.

Financial Rights

As mentioned, divorced couples may owe each other financial obligations after the end of their marriage. Some of the issues the parties must discuss during divorce proceedings include:

  • Property distribution (assets, property, and debts)
  • Alimony or spousal support.
  • Child support

Spousal support entitles ex-spouses to a share of the other party’s earnings for a number of years.

After the end of an annulment, on the other hand, the parties don’t owe each other anything as they were not considered legal spouses. The idea is for each party to revert to the financial position they were in before the marriage.

Divorces Vs. Annulment (Differences)

Marriage existenceNoYes
Time before filingImmediatelyDepends on State, usually 1 to 2 years
Property distributionNoYes
Spousal supportNoDepends on several factors
GroundsYesYes (fault divorce), No (no-fault divorce)
Marital status afterwardsUnmarried or singleDivorced
Proof requirementYesNo (no-fault divorce)
Legal qualificationCan be difficultUsually easy to attain

Final Steps of Legally Ending a Marriage


When a couple files for divorce, the process is usually finalized as follows:

  • Negotiations: Both parties disclose their personal and combined assets, income, expenses, and liabilities. They then discuss, usually with the help of attorneys, matters like alimony, property distribution, and child support.
  • Legal documents: If both parties agree on the terms laid down during the negotiations, they file legal paperwork with the court and await a judgment.
  • Judgment: The court enters a final judgment, and the marriage is effectively terminated. This must happen within the state-mandated timeline.
  • Trial (optional): If the divorce is fault-based or the spouses cannot agree to any terms, they might be forced to turn to mediation, arbitration, or a trial.


While divorces are almost always granted, a judge can refuse to grant a couple an annulment if they don’t meet the requirements. If the annulment is successful, however, there will be no negotiations about property distribution or spousal support. Both parties might need to discuss child support and custody if the marriage resulted in children.

Final Thoughts

The Difference Between Divorce and Annulment boils down to one fact: a divorce ends a legal marriage while an annulment declares a marriage legally invalid. An annulment says that the marriage never existed in the first place and, as such, the parties don’t owe each other assets or support, as is the case with a divorce.

Authored by:
DocFormats Staff Author
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