Annulment vs a Divorce: What's the Difference?

Annulment vs a Divorce: What’s the Difference?

In the world of television, many popular shows have storylines where characters play with the idea of annulment. In the hit show Friends, for example, Ross tries to hide the idea of a third divorce by attempting to get an annulment after his whirlwind marriage to Rachel. But aside from what shows up in pop culture, most people don’t actually know much about annulments. This leads to the question, what is an annulment, and how is it different from a divorce? This article will explore the differences between annulment vs divorce and how to determine which option might be best for you.

What is a Divorce

As most people know, a divorce is the legal end to a marriage. This is the process in which a couple dissolves their marriage through the courts. It can be done at any time, and either spouse can decide to file for a divorce. A divorce begins by filing a petition for dissolution of marriage. A divorce will address any length of marriage and all the odds and ends that come from it. This includes spousal support, child support, property division, and child custody arrangements.

What is an Annulment

In many states, annulments are called Declarations of Invalidity. At its core, an annulment is legally pretending a marriage never occurred in the first place. It is when a marriage is lawfully deemed null and void. In most cases, an annulment will only happen if the marriage is invalid to begin with. To get an annulment, you must prove to the court that your marriage was never valid for a variety of reasons. However, even though the annulment would show that the marriage was invalid, the marriage record will remain on file with the government. Because of their specific nature, annulments will not address some common aspects of separation, like support payments, parenting time, or property division. 

Grounds for an Annulment

Annulments are not very common! This is because they apply to very few scenarios. A marriage requires very specific conditions to qualify for an annulment and for this reason, annulments are generally not a viable option for most people.

Despite punchlines used in pop culture, an annulment is not possible even if the marriage isn’t consummated or if it has been really short.

As with all aspects of family law, each state has specific rules governing annulments. When considering an annulment, you should consult a family law lawyer familiar with your local laws.

Wonder what else you could be doing to support yourself? Consider reading, “36 Things to Do If You are Thinking About Divorce.”

Common Scenarios and Legal Considerations

Generally, for a court to grant an annulment, the person asking for the annulment must prove to the court that they never had a valid marriage. Certain scenarios can lead to an annulment. Those include things like:

  • Being tricked into a marriage
  • Being forced into a marriage
  • Being unable to consent to a marriage (whether due to intoxication, mental ability, or age)
  • Being too closely related to your spouse
  • Being lied to about serious health conditions that impact the marriage
  • Already being legally married
  • Concealing the fact that you can’t have kids

These are just some of the common grounds for an annulment – and these legal grounds are not set in stone. For example, if you marry someone while you are intoxicated but then continue to live together or hold yourself out as married, then you likely will not qualify for an annulment because you have agreed to the marriage. Some states follow this rationale for underage marriages as well. We have also heard that an annulment may be necessary for some specific careers. For example, at SAS for Women, we were recently contacted by a woman who is a theologian. She needs to secure an annulment for her marriage, because if she divorces, she may not be hired by some institutions that do not permit divorce among their religious faculty. Whether her marriage has grounds for an annulment is another matter that she must explore.

Annulment Timelines: Variations Across States

The timeline for annulment varies from state to state. Some states have a strict timeline for filing for an annulment, while some are more lax about it. In Washington state, most annulments occur within one year of marriage, and obtaining one becomes challenging if the marriage lasts longer. Illinois often requires cases to request an annulment within 90 days of marriage. In contrast, New York allows seeking an annulment at any time due to the marriage’s inherent invalidity.

If “speed” is an issue for you ( — how fast can change happen) check out, “Which States Have the Shortest Residency Requirement to Divorce and Which Ones the Longest?”

If your marriage shares a similarity with any of the above examples, then it might be helpful to consult with an attorney who can determine if an annulment could work for you. Otherwise, there are very few circumstances and often a very tight timeline to have the proper grounds for an annulment.

Grounds for a Divorce

On the complete, opposite side of annulments, you can seek a divorce for any reason. A divorce can be granted on a fault or no-fault basis. In this day and age, almost all states allow for a no-fault option for divorce. This means that there doesn’t have to be a legal reason for the divorce. Regardless of what happened during the marriage, neither spouse needs to be the “guilty” person to file for a no-fault divorce. Either spouse can also file for a divorce at any time. Basically, you can seek a divorce for any reason, and as long as you follow the proper court procedures, it will be granted.

To learn more about no-fault divorces and the grounds for divorce, check out “Fault Divorce vs. No Fault Divorce: What You Need to Know.”

Cultural Divorce Options

Culture can also play a pivotal role in how you approach separating. Your cultural background might impact whether you seek a divorce or annulment and what that means to you. For example, getting a Get as part of the divorce is a Jewish tradition. A Get is a formal, dated, and witnessed document that a husband must secure to divorce his wife. Usually accompanied by a Get ceremony, this document includes specific language and writing typically overseen by a Rabbi. Another example is the Catholic Annulment. A Catholic Annulment petitions the church to open a hearing to determine if the marriage was ever valid in the eyes of the church. This is based on the canons of the Catholic church. While these cultural separations are not legally enforceable, nor are they legal annulments, they can be part of your spiritual separation journey.


When you start feeling your marriage just isn’t going to work out, and you are ready to move on, you might start considering your options for ending it. Figuring out how you want to approach changing things is a big deal. Whether it is through an annulment, divorce, or other cultural avenue, there is no one right or best answer. Exploring and understanding your options and what they mean are important first steps when thinking about divorce and how you want to change your life.


Elizabeth is a newly minted attorney passionate about children and families and plans to work in a family-centered nonprofit. 


Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner them through the emotional, financial, and oftentimes complicated experience of breaking up and reinventing. 

If you are thinking about … or beginning the breakup process, you’ll want to consider Annie’s Group, our signature, 3-month group coaching program for thoughtful women wanting an education, community, and guidance for learning what is possible for their lives. 

Whether it’s an annulment, separation, or divorce, commit to discovering what is true, and what will be the healthiest path for you and everyone.

Check out Annie Group here.


*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

Share these insights

Leave a comment or thought.
We`d love to hear what you are thinking after reading this post.