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Divorce vs. Annulment

Parts of the United State have a diverse population, made diverse by generations of immigrants. The Catholic population in parts of this county is significant, and therefore, questions about the intersection between Catholicism and family law come up regularly, particularly regarding divorces or annulments. Keep in mind that rulings from the Catholic church do not have any bearing on your marital status or ability to remarry; however, for some individuals, the granting of a Catholic Annulment is an important aspect if they want to divorce and remarry.

What is a Catholic Annulment?

It is when the Church tribunal, or a court of the Catholic church, determines that the marriage lacks one of the essential things required to have a binding, lasting union within the church. These requirements are first, that the spouses are free to marry and are capable of consenting to marriage. They must freely exchange their consent (in other words, they cannot be marrying under duress), and they must have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful and welcome children. They must ‘intend the good’ of each other. Finally, their consent must be given before two witnesses and a church minister, authorized by the appropriate Church authority. If one of these elements is lacking, then the Church will declare an annulment.

How is This Different From a Civil Annulment?

A civil annulment makes the declaration that the marriage was null and void to begin with. Essentially, that the relationship never occurred. In contrast, the Catholic church does not deny that the marriage was not valid under civil law; rather, the marriage is not valid under Church law.

What Does a Catholic Annulment do?

Essentially, a divorced spouse is not allowed to remarry because of certain Catholic teachings that to do so would be to commit adultery. Therefore, before remarrying, the church will consider if the first marriage was valid or not. If it was not, then the divorced parties are free to remarry within the Catholic church. Remember, this is only within the laws of the church, and not the laws of a state.

What is the Process to Get a Catholic Annulment?

To put it simply – it’s complicated. Depending on what church you are a member of, there are two different laws that will regulate. The Code of Canon Law will govern the western Catholic church, while the Code of Canons of Eastern Churches governs the Eastern ones. Prior to Pope Francis coming to power, the annulment process often took many years, and the process was difficult.

But Pope Francis instituted multiple changes with the aim of easing the process. He lowered the costs associated with obtaining an annulment and got rid of the provision which required an automatic appeal upon the granting of an annulment in uncontested matters. He also created a hybrid system between the formal process, which involves gathering testimony, and the documentary process, which deals only with documentary evidence. Now, if the evidence to obtain a nullity s pretty clear, then they can simply be presented to the bishop who will make a decision based on that.

What Kind of Evidence is Considered?

Both testimonial and documentary evidence will be considered. Documentary evidence could be something like proof that someone other than a Catholic priest or deacon married the parties without the appropriate dispensation. Testimonial evidence is typically in the form of a written account from friends or family who could provide insight as to the issues in the marriage.

How Long Will the Process Take?

It depends on what kind of process is utilized, as well as the clarity of the evidence. The local tribunal and diocese can assist you and give an estimate on the length of time it will take to obtain a Catholic annulment.

Examples of When Annulments are Granted

Often, if the couple divorces very quickly after marriage, this may demonstrate that they did not have the intent of a life-long commitment at the time of marrying. If there was infidelity occurring before or during the marriage, this is evidence that there was no intent to remain faithful to the other spouse. Also, when a spouse is not open to having children. And of course, if the marriage took place outside the Catholic church, this would be a clear indication that the marriage was not valid, according to Canonical rules.

How Will the Annulment Effect Children Born Within the Marriage?

It really will have no effect. There is no effect on the legitimacy of the children if they were born during the marriage since the parents are presumed to be married at the time the child is born. Even when a marriage is declared null, parental obligations still subsist, and the Church has no authority when it comes to child custody or support.

What if my Spouse Will not Cooperate in Obtaining the Annulment?

Just as in a civil case, you must try to contact and work with your former spouse so that they have the opportunity to be heard. However, just as in a civil case, if they are completely uncooperative, this will not prevent the case from proceeding. Of course, if the parties are in agreement as to trying to get an annulment, the process will always be easier, more efficient, and quicker.

Where do I Begin?

Get in touch with your priest or deacon of your local parish. If you are not a member of a parish currently, then the diocesan Marriage Tribunal will be your first stop. The priest should have a copy of the forms the Church requires to begin the process of a Catholic Annulment and will also be on hand to answer any questions you might have.

If you have questions about a civil divorce or annulment in New Jersey, contact the law offices of Peter Van Aulen for a free initial consultation at 201-845-7400.

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