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Annulment vs. Divorce in California

To end your marriage in California, you may decide to seek a divorce. But in some cases, you may be able to get an annulment instead. It’s important to understand the differences between these two options, plus the advantages and disadvantages of each.

7 differences between annulment and divorce in California

1. Legal basis 

Divorce: A California judge may grant a no-fault divorce if you assert that you and your spouse have irreconcilable differences you cannot overcome. Because California is a no-fault divorce state, you don't need to prove that someone hurt you or lied about anything. You also don't need to explain why you want your marriage to end. 

Annulment: A California judge may grant an annulment if you can prove your marriage is not legally valid. At the end of the annulment process, you are not considered “divorced.” Instead, in the eyes of the legal system, you were never married in the first place.

2. Court involvement

Divorce: Couples who collaborate and agree on their divorce settlement, including details pertaining to child care and spousal support, can handle their divorce paperwork alone. They don't need to hire lawyers or otherwise get legal help. A DIY divorce is definitely possible. 

Annulment: An annulment in California requires a court case. A judge may annul a marriage in California for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Incest or bigamy: Incestuous and bigamous relationships are not legal in California, and the presence of one or both will void the marriage.
  • Age: If one spouse was underage (younger than 18 years old) at the time of the marriage and a judge didn't sign off on the union, the marriage could be invalid.
  • Fraud: If one spouse “tricks” or otherwise deceives the other into marriage, it is considered fraudulent, resulting in the nullity of the union.
  • Mental illness: Both parties must be of sound mind to marry. If one or both have an unsound mind, the marriage may be annulled.
  • Physical health: Both parties must be able to physically consummate the marriage. If one or both have a physical incapacity to do so, the marriage may be annulled.
  • Former spouses: If one person is married to someone thought dead (but that person isn't actually dead), the marriage is invalid.
  • Coercion: Spouses can't be forced into marriage. If the relationship was coerced at the time of marriage, it is not a valid marriage.

If you seek a California annulment, you must prove that one of these situations applies to your marriage. To do this, you must get the courts involved. No DIY option applies here. 

3. Residency requirements

Divorce: To file for a California divorce, you or your spouse must meet certain residency requirements. One of you must have lived in the state for the past six months, and you must have lived in your current county for the past three months. 

Annulment: The above residency requirements don't apply to an annulment. You must live in the state of California when you file, but you're not required to prove how long you've lived there. 

4. Waiting period 

Divorce: California courts require couples to wait six months from first filing paperwork to finalize the divorce. Couples can make this process longer by arguing over details, but they can't shorten the timeline

Annulment: Annulments don't mandate a waiting period. Waiting for a court date could lengthen the process, but when the judge completes your paperwork, you're officially single. 

5. Property and spousal support 

Divorce: During the divorce process, couples determine who will retain custody of any children, who will keep the family home, and other details. Amicable couples can agree to terms together without getting lawyers involved. But even couples who can't talk to one another are required to split their assets and debts during the process. 

Annulment: A judge can only divide property and debts and order spousal support if one party (mistakenly) thought the marriage was valid. For example, if both of you entered marriage knowing you were somehow breaking the law (for example, you were related but got married anyway), a California court wouldn't require you to split your estate. Instead, you’d have to figure out those details on your own.

6. Time limit

Divorce: You can get divorced at any point in your marriage. Whether you've been married for two days or two decades, you can opt to end things. 

Annulment: Most annulments are time-limited. Couples typically must file within four years of their marriage date to get them voided. 

7. Transfer options

If you file for an annulment and the judge says you don’t meet the requirements, you can switch to a divorce process instead. But if you file for a divorce, you can’t later change your mind and change the process to an annulment. 

The pros and cons of divorce vs. annulment

Should you choose a divorce?

A divorce is a legal proceeding that results in the end of your marriage. Once a divorce is final, it's irrevocable.

Perks of divorce include the following:

  • One spouse can terminate the marriage even if the other doesn't agree.
  • Couples have the option to conduct a DIY divorce instead of hiring expensive divorce lawyers, saving both time and money.
  • California law declares that community property, as well as debt, must be split 50/50.

Drawbacks include the following:

  • The six-month waiting period can be hard to endure, especially if you're dating someone new.
  • Residency requirements could block your ability to get divorced as soon as you would like.
  • Some religions ban divorce for married couples

Should you choose an annulment?

An annulment may be another legal option to terminate your marriage. At the end of the process, you would be restored to single status. It would be as though your marriage never happened.

Perks of annulment include the following:

  • You get your single status back, as though you were never married.
  • There is no waiting period between filing paperwork and finalizing the annulment.
  • No residency requirement applies to couples seeking an annulment in California.

Drawbacks include the following:

  • It can be difficult to split property, especially if you and your partner do not get along, because the court won’t help.
  • It can be expensive to hire a family law attorney, and no DIY annulment option exists.
  • There is a time limit, typically four years, which could block you from filing to end your marriage in this way.

References

 Divorce in California. Judicial Branch of California.
 Annulment. Judicial Branch of California.
 Legal Reasons a Judge Can Annul a Marriage. Judicial Branch of California.
 Start an Annulment Case. Judicial Branch of California.
 Yours, Mine, and Ours – Detangling the Web of Separate and Marital Property. (May 2022). Forbes.