Everything You Need to Know About Annulment in California

When considering the dissolution of a marriage, many people immediately think of divorce. However, annulment in California is another legal option that may be appropriate in certain situations.

Unlike divorce, which terminates a legally valid marriage, an annulment declares that the marriage was never legally valid to begin with. This fundamental difference can affect everything from property division to future relationships, making it crucial for California residents to understand the legal and personal implications of seeking an annulment.

In this article, we will explore the aspects of annulment in California, helping you understand whether it is a viable option for your circumstances and how it contrasts with divorce.

What is an Annulment?

An annulment is a legal procedure that nullifies a marriage, treating it as if it never legally occurred. This differs fundamentally from a divorce, which acknowledges that a marriage was once valid but has now been legally dissolved. Annulment erases the legal record of the marriage, effectively stating that in the eyes of the law, the marriage never existed due to reasons that make it void or voidable from the start.

In contrast, divorce ends a legally recognized marriage and addresses the division of assets, alimony, and child custody as part of the termination process.

While both annulment and divorce deal with the end of marital relationships, they do so on very different legal grounds. Annulment is typically used in cases where there is a factor that invalidates the marriage from its inception—such as fraud, bigamy, or lack of consent—making the marriage either legally void from the start or voidable upon action by one of the parties.

Grounds for Annulment in California

In California, some marriages are considered legally void from the start, while others may be annulled if certain conditions are met.

Let’s explore the grounds for annulment in both categories:

Void Marriages (Never Legally Valid)

  • Bigamy — This occurs when one spouse is already legally married to someone else at the time of the marriage.
  • Underage Marriage — California law prohibits marriage under the age of 18 without parental consent.
  • Lack of Consent — A marriage is invalid if one or both parties were forced into it or lacked the mental capacity to understand the significance of marriage.
  • Incest — Marriage between close relatives is illegal in California.
  • Mental Incapacity — If one spouse was too mentally impaired to understand the nature of marriage vows at the time of the ceremony, the marriage can be considered void.

Voidable Marriages (Can Be Annulled)

These marriages were initially considered valid but can be annulled under specific circumstances:

  • Fraud — If one spouse deceived the other about a crucial aspect of the marriage, like their ability to have children or their immigration status, the marriage can be annulled.
  • Force — Marriages obtained through coercion or threats are considered voidable.
  • Mistake — A mistake about a fundamental aspect of the marriage, such as one spouse’s identity, can be grounds for annulment. However, this mistake must be significant and something a reasonable person wouldn’t have overlooked.

There are time limits associated with filing for annulment based on voidable grounds.  Be sure to consult with an experienced divorce attorney to understand the specific deadlines that apply to your situation.

Effects of an Annulment: Redefining Your Life After Unraveling the Marriage

An annulment has significant consequences that differ from those of a divorce. Here’s how an annulment in California impacts various aspects of your life:

  • Marital Status — After an annulment, you and your former spouse are considered legally single, as if the marriage never occurred. This can be helpful if you wish to remarry quickly or avoid any legal complexities associated with being married.
  • Property Division — California operates under community property laws, where assets and debts acquired during the marriage are typically divided equally. However, since an annulment declares the marriage void, community property laws don’t apply. Each spouse generally keeps the property they acquired before the marriage and is responsible for their separate debts. There may be exceptions depending on the specific circumstances and if the court finds one spouse to be a ‘putative spouse’ (someone who believed the marriage was valid in good faith).
  • Spousal Support — Similar to property division, there is no entitlement to spousal support after an annulment. The court cannot award alimony to either party unless one spouse qualifies as a putative spouse.
  • Child Custody and Visitation — If children were born during the annulled marriage, child custody, and visitation rights still need to be established. The court will determine these based on the child’s best interests, similar to a divorce case.

These are general guidelines. The specific effects of an annulment can vary depending on your unique circumstances. Consulting with a divorce lawyer is crucial to understanding how an annulment would impact your situation.

Annulment might seem like a straightforward process, but legal procedures are involved. Here is a breakdown of the steps to get an annulment in California:

  • Residency Requirements  Unlike the six-month waiting period for a divorce, the only requirement to file for an annulment in California is that you live in the state at the time of filing.
  • Filing a Petition for Annulment  The first step is to file a Petition for Nullity of Marriage (Form FL-100) and the Summons (Form FL-110) with the California court in the county where you or your spouse lives. The petition outlines the grounds for annulment and your desired outcome regarding property division and child custody (if applicable).
  • Serving Your Spouse — Once the petition is filed, you must have your spouse served with legal papers informing them of the annulment proceedings. This is usually done by a professional process server. This person must complete a Proof of Service of Summons (Form FL-115) to verify that your spouse was served.
  • Wait for a Response — Your spouse has 30 days to respond to the petition. The process can unfold in a few ways:
    • Uncontested Annulment — If your spouse agrees to the annulment, the court will likely schedule a hearing to review your petition and finalize the annulment. You may be required to appear before a judge and provide evidence supporting your grounds for annulment.
    • Contested Annulment — If your spouse disagrees with the annulment or disputes regarding property or child custody, the process becomes more complex. You will need legal representation to navigate court appearances, hearings, and potentially a trial.
  • Court Hearing — Depending on your case, a court hearing might be necessary. Be prepared to present all evidence supporting your grounds for annulment.
  • Required Documentation — Make sure you have the following documents at hand:
    • Evidence related to the grounds of your annulment, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, written contracts, or medical records.
    • Financial documents if your annulment involves disputes over property or debts.
  • Statute of Limitations The time limits for filing an annulment vary depending on the grounds:
  • Fraud, force, physical incapacity, or unsound mind — Within four years of discovering the issue.
  • Underage marriage — Before the underage spouse turns 22.
  • Bigamy, incest, or prior existing marriage — Anytime as long as both spouses are alive.

The California court system offers self-help resources to guide you through the annulment process. However, considering the complexities involved, especially in contested cases, consulting with an experienced family law attorney is highly recommended. They can advise you on your specific situation, represent you in court, and ensure your rights are protected throughout the process.

Common Misconceptions About Annulments

Annulments are often surrounded by myths and misconceptions, which can lead to misunderstandings about their nature and legal requirements. Addressing these myths is crucial for anyone considering this path to end a marital relationship. 

Here, we clarify some of the most common misconceptions about annulments in California.

1. Myth: Short Marriages Can Be Annulled Easily

Reality: The length of the marriage is generally irrelevant when it comes to annulment. Unlike divorce, where the duration of the marriage can affect decisions like alimony, annulment is solely based on the grounds that existed at the time of the marriage. A short marriage does not automatically qualify for annulment unless one of the specific legal grounds, such as fraud, force, or incapacity, is proven.

2. Myth: Annulment Is Cheaper Than Divorce

Reality: While it is true that annulments can sometimes involve fewer legal battles over assets and alimony (since the marriage is considered void), the legal process itself isn’t necessarily cheaper. The costs of filing, court fees, and attorney fees can be similar to those of a divorce, especially if the annulment is contested and requires a trial to prove the grounds for annulment.

3. Myth: Annulments Are a Quick Fix

Reality: Some people believe annulments are quicker than divorces. However, annulments can require extensive proof and legal argument to establish the grounds for invalidating the marriage. If the other spouse contests the annulment, this can lead to a lengthy legal process, potentially longer than a no-fault divorce proceeding.

4. Myth: Children From an Annulled Marriage Are Considered Illegitimate

Reality: This is a widespread misconception. In California, children born in a marriage that is later annulled are still considered legitimate. Parental responsibilities, including child support and custody, are determined based on the child’s best interests, similar to divorce proceedings.

5. Myth: Any Marriage Can Be Annulled Under Certain Circumstances

Reality: Annulments are only possible if specific, stringent legal criteria are met. Common reasons such as incompatibility, adultery, or changed feelings are not grounds for annulment. Each ground for annulment requires solid evidence, making it a less flexible option than many assume.

Rarity and Complexity of Annulments

Annulments are relatively rare compared to divorces due to the strict legal grounds required. They are often more complex legally because they involve proving that the marriage was invalid from the start. This complexity can necessitate detailed legal knowledge and often requires the expertise of a family law attorney.

Understanding these misconceptions and the actual realities of annulment can help individuals make more informed decisions about whether to seek an annulment or a divorce. Consulting with a legal professional who understands the nuances of California’s family law is essential to successfully navigating this complex area.

Put Your Trust in Our Bakersfield Family Law Attorneys

Going through separation is not an easy process. At The Gorski Firm, we understand the complexities of family law and the emotional challenges involved in ending a marriage. Our team of experienced Bakersfield divorce attorneys is dedicated to providing compassionate and effective legal representation to everyone. 

Whether you are considering annulment or divorce, we promise to fight for you to achieve a fair and favorable outcome. Don’t hesitate to contact us today for a consultation. We are here to guide you through this challenging time each step of the way.

Written by Vincent A. Gorski

Vincent Gorski is a Bakersfield California Family Law and Bankruptcy lawyer. He is certified by the California Board of Legal Specialization in both Family Law and Bankruptcy. He is the founder of The Gorski Firm and assists clients in complex and routine family law and bankruptcy issues. He was licensed to practice in Indiana in 2007 and California in 2009. He regularly writes on topics related to Bankruptcy and Family Law issues (divorce, custody, visitation, support, property division, etc.)

June 6, 2024

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