How do I know if I can get an annulment?

There are some common misconceptions about the law surrounding the annulment of a marriage and the availability of an annulment as an “alternative” to divorce. While annulling a marriage can be a more desirable means of ending a marriage, as opposed to the typical divorce, Tennessee law restricts the availability to certain clearly proscribed circumstances.

As such, this article will discuss the law of annulment in Tennessee, with a specific focus on:

  1. The differences from a standard divorce; and
  2. When annulment is an available measure.

What is an annulment and how is it different from a divorce?

The biggest difference between an annulment and divorce is that a divorce simply ends a marriage, while an annulment makes the marriage as though it never existed. This difference is due to the fact that for a marriage to be annulled, it must have been invalid from the beginning. Put differently, the party who asks a court for an annulment must show that there is some defect in the marriage contract that makes the marriage contract unenforceable; as opposed to a divorce, which simply terminates an otherwise valid marriage.

So to some degree, the two are the same, as they both involve legally separating two people: The parties are free to marry other persons, the marital property is divided, a parenting plan is put down, etc. At their hearts, however, the two proceedings are fundamentally different.

When is an annulment available?

The circumstances that govern the availability of annulments are derived from the common law, so they are those that courts have historically found to cut against the existence of a marriage. Boiled down, the available circumstances are those where a party could not legally understand the significance of the marriage, procreation, and violations of the law. They are as follows:

Insanity

Insanity is a ground for annulment where the existence of a mental infirmity prevented one party from understanding his or her actions. It analyzes the marriage like one would a contract:  could and did the alleged insane party understand what he was doing and the significance of its impact on his life.

Failure to Consummate

One party’s refusal to have sex in the marriage can provide grounds for an annulment, as it has been historically viewed as one party’s denial of the other’s rights. This ground is typically only available, however, where the parties have never had sex.

Incurable Impotence

Incurable impotence refers to one party’s complete inability to have sexual intercourse; it does not refer to the occasional inability, or simple unwillingness. Incurable impotence provides grounds for annulment because it prevents the married couple from having children, which is an historic and typical reason many decide to get married. For the incurable impotence to provide grounds for annulment, it must have existed at the time the parties were married. It is most successful where the other party first discovers the fact later.

Marriage of a Minor

In Tennessee, an individual must be at least sixteen (16) years old to be married. However, until the age of majority (18), the marriage requires the consent of a parent or guardian. If a minor party is married without the consent of a parent or guardian, the minor party has the ability to have the marriage found void. However, the adult party does not.

Secret Pregnancy

A woman’s secret pregnancy at the time of the marriage can be grounds for annulment in certain circumstances. An applicable situation would be where the woman is pregnant at the time of the marriage, the husband does not know, and the husband is not the biological father.

Bigamy

In Tennessee, as in most states, marriage to more than one person is illegal. The first in time, first in right rule applies in Tennessee. Put simply, the first marriage is the real marriage. Any subsequent marriage that takes place while the first is still valid is deemed void.

Marriage Under Duress

Marriage must be entered into voluntarily. The classic tale from film and literature where the villain forces a princess to marry him under threat of harming her family or the kingdom would provide grounds for annulment in Tennessee. There are many ways to “force” someone into a marriage however that do not require actual threats of harm. Duress will justify grounds for annulment where the victim’s free will is overcome.

Fraud

Marriage induced by fraud is viewed similarly to marriage under duress. For fraud to justify annulment, the deception must have been “material or substantial to the person’s decision to enter into the marriage.” Primary examples include, but are not limited to:

Misrepresenting the paternity of a child and

Promising to have children and later refusing.

Incest

Incest is illegal in Tennessee and can be a Class C felony. As such, marriages between siblings, parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, aunt/uncle and nephew/niece, or between first cousins are void marriage and subject to annulment in Tennessee. Note, some, more distant family marriages are completely legal.

If you are contemplating divorce, but believe you fit one of the circumstances for annulment, call to consult with one of the experienced domestic attorneys at Batson Nolan.  If you have more legal questions, contact us to be connected with the right attorney for all your legal needs.  With hundreds of years of combined legal experience, we are committed to helping our clients and to achieving results that exceed expectations.