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Understanding a Declaration of Nullity

What is a declaration of nullity?

A declaration of nullity  is an official statement by the appropriate Tribunal of the Catholic Church that what appeared to be a marriage was, in fact, not a true marriage. What is often called an ‘annulment’, or declaration of nullity as it is called in Church law, does not deny that a real relationship existed, nor does it imply that the relationship was entered into with ill will or moral fault. It means that the relationship fell short of at least one of the essential elements for a binding union. Unlike a civil divorce which breaks a marriage bond, an annulment is a Church declaration that the union was invalid from the moment the couple exchanged consent.

Are there any civil effects to a church annulment? What about the legitimacy of children?

Children born of a marriage which might later be declared null are always considered by both canon and civil law to be legitimate. There are absolutely no civil effects from a Church annulment in the United States. Therefore, the annulment does not affect in any manner the custody of children, property rights, inheritance rights or names. These issues are under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. Rather, the purpose of this ecclesial process is to serve one’s conscience and, where necessary, to reconcile persons so that they may fully participate in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church.

Who may apply for an annulment?

Anyone who has been previously married, whether baptized or unbaptized, Catholic or non-Catholic, may seek a declaration of nullity. A petition must be submitted in writing before the Tribunal which has jurisdiction in that particular case. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction is determined by such factors as where the wedding took place or where both parties currently reside. The Tribunal does not usually accept a petition until a person can prove that a civil divorce has already been granted.

What about confidentiality?

Only the Petitioner, Respondent, and the Tribunal staff have access to the case material. The involved persons’ pastor reviews the initial petition, but then is unable to see further information without consent.

How long does the procedure take?

The cooperation of the Petitioner, Respondent and witnesses and the quality of their testimonies have a significant effect on the length of time each case takes. No two cases are alike, but the norm is 12 months. The Tribunal is required by law to give a specified amount of time to various steps in the process. Your cooperation and patience is important. There is no way that any member of the Tribunal staff can predict when a given case will be finished. Diocesan regulations stipulate that no new marriage may be scheduled in any Catholic parish unless an affirmative decision is reached.

Is there a fee for tribunal services?

No, there is no cost for a formal annulment case in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

Am I guaranteed to receive a declaration of nullity?

There is no guarantee. There must be evidence that an essential element of marriage was absent, otherwise the Judge cannot rule that the marriage was invalid.

How does someone begin the process?

A packet with additional instructions and the forms to be completed is available in every parish in the Diocese. However, if for some particular reason this would be especially difficult, please contact the Tribunal to make other arrangements.

What steps are followed by the tribunal?

The work of the Tribunal staff is governed by the Code of Canon Law. This law is intended to protect the rights of all parties involved and to safeguard the integrity of marriage. The major steps of the process include the following:

  1. The completed request form must be submitted to the Tribunal by the one who seeks an annulment together with the following documents: Baptismal certificates of both parties and a copy of the civil divorce decree. This request form must include the current address of the other party.
  2. After a petition is received, the Tribunal contacts the former spouse (the Respondent) who is invited to participate in the process. The Respondent has the right to be informed and to participate in the annulment process. However, failure to participate does not necessarily impede the progress of the case.
  3. Upon request of the Tribunal, the Petitioner provides a list of witnesses who are willing to participate. The Tribunal needs the insights of witnesses who can offer information concerning the relationship in question. The Respondent also has the right to present witnesses.
  4. Every case is evaluated by a Defender of the Bond whose responsibility it is to protect the integrity of the Marriage bond by presenting all of the significant reasons that argue in favor of a valid marriage.
  5. A single Judge (or panel of Judges) carefully studies the testimony of both spouses and that of the witnesses. In some cases the Judge consults with a psychological expert. If the Judge reaches moral certitude that invalidity has been proven, then the Judge issues a declaration of nullity. If the Judge cannot reach moral certitude, then a negative decision is issued.
  6. Both parties have the right to inspect the testimony which was submitted in the case before a decision is rendered. This right is safeguarded by certain procedures which are explained during the course of the process.
  7. Once all evidence is gathered, the judge will review all the facts, arrive at a decision and publish the sentence. Both parties have the right to review this decision, even if there is no appeal.
  8. Finally, both parties have the right to appeal the Judge’s decision.