If you are unhappy in your marriage, divorce is always an option, unless it’s not. By that, we mean that New York is a no-fault state for divorce. Therefore, the law allows either spouse to file for divorce without citing traditional grounds of marital misconduct, such as adultery or cruelty. You do not have to prove anything; your assertion that the marital relationship is “irretrievably broken” is sufficient. Yet, divorce, even no-fault and uncontested, might not be an option for you.
There are many people for whom divorce is unthinkable. Conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews face strict prohibitions, and members of other faiths are somewhat restricted in their rights to divorce. Divorcing in contravention of their faith exposes individuals to scandal and various degrees of ostracism. For people in these situations, the more acceptable way to dissolve a marriage is through annulment, which is a similar but distinct process based on a different set of considerations.
What Is the Difference Between a Divorce and an Annulment?
These two types of marital dissolution differ on the essential question of why the marriage should be dissolved. Divorce says that a validly created marriage has gone bad, and the spouses should be released from their obligations to one another. Annulment says that a valid union was never created, so there is no basis for considering the parties to be married. Whereas divorce looks at events that have unfolded since the wedding and the circumstances as they now stand, annulment limits itself to examining the marriage’s formation. Annulment asks, “Was the marriage legal at the outset?” If not, the court will issue a ruling stating that the parties were never really married.
Thus, a divorcee is someone who was previously married. A divorcee has an “ex-spouse.” But someone who has gotten an annulment can honestly and legally say they have never been married. An annulled marriage has no “exes.”
Grounds for Annulling a Marriage in New York
There are two types of invalid marriages that are eligible for annulment under New York law: void and voidable. A void marriage is one that the state would never accept as legal. This category includes:
- Incestuous relationships — The law does not permit close-blood relatives to marry.
- Bigamy — If one spouse is already married and has not gotten a divorce, a second marriage to another party is not valid. The second marriage remains invalid even if the bigamist gets a divorce, since it was not valid at the time of solemnization.
- Marriage involving a party under 14 years of age — The law prohibits a person this young from marrying, even with parental consent.
A voidable marriage is one that the state will recognize as valid until one or both spouses comes forward to request an annulment. These include:
- Marriages entered involuntarily — Marriage vows must be taken free of duress, coercion, or fraud. If one party felt compelled to marry due to threats or emotional pressure, or had been persuaded by misrepresenting a material fact, the exchange of vows is not binding. But annulment is not available on the grounds of duress if the couple cohabitated at any time before the marriage.
- Underage marriage — Parties 16 to 18 years of age must have parental permission to marry. Parties aged 14 to 16 must also have the court’s approval. Underage parties and their parents can petition for an annulment.
- Lack of capacity due to mental illness — A person who married while suffering from a mental illness cannot give proper consent.
- Inability to consummate the marriage — If one spouse is physically unable to engage in sexual intercourse, there are grounds to annul the marriage. The party requesting the annulment has to have been unaware of the condition at the time of solemnization.
- Incurable mental illness for a period of five years — If a spouse has been diagnosed with an incurable mental illness for more than five years, the other spouse may request an annulment.
Under any of these circumstances, a court can grant the annulment and restore the parties to their single status.
How Long After Marriage Can You Get an Annulment?
New York law does not set a firm statute of limitations on annulments, but the availability of an annulment can change over time. As mentioned, a void marriage will never be legal, no matter how long the couple remains together. However, voidable marriages might not be voidable forever.
For example, a person who was underage at the time of the marriage loses the right to an annulment on those grounds, if they continue to live with their partner after they reach the age of majority. A person who agreed to a marriage due to fraud, loses the right to an annulment when they remain married after the fraud is discovered. If a person had been intoxicated during the wedding ceremony, but didn’t object after sobering up, and remained in the marriage for a lengthy period, the court won’t find grounds for annulment. Similarly, a marriage where one party could not consent due to mental illness cannot be annulled if that person recovers and the couple maintains a marital relationship for any period of time.
The one instance where the law imposes a firm time limit is when one spouse is unable to consummate the marriage. Annulments on this ground must be filed within five years.
Dissolving your marriage through annulment or divorce is a big step. You should make sure you are fully informed about your rights and options, by consulting an experienced family law attorney.