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A legal annulment is a declaration that a marriage was never valid in the first place, and is dissolved and treated under law like it never existed. This differs from divorce, the dissolution of a legally valid marriage on the grounds of problems that arose during the course of the marriage. It is important to distinguish between legal and religious annulments. Some churches, like the Catholic church, have the power to annul marriages by declaring them not recognized by religious authorities, but this is not the same as a legal annulment.
Marriages can be annulled under the law on a number of different grounds. Fraud, such as inducing someone to marry under false pretenses, is an example. People can also request an annulment if they find out a marriage is considered illegal by law, as in the case of bigamous marriages in areas where multiple spouses are not legally permitted, or incestuous marriages that violate laws concerning marriage between close genetic relatives.
A legal annulment can also be requested if force or duress was involved in the marriage contract. People who are threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise coerced into marriages can argue that the marriage was illegal from the start. Marriages involving underage parties or people who lacked the capacity for consent, such as individuals with profound cognitive disabilities and some marriages involving mental illness, can also be legally annulled.
The legal annulment is a retroactive court order, declaring that the marriage should be treated like it never happened. The parties to the marriage do not have access to remedies like alimony and child support, as they do not have a legally recognized relationship. In cases where one partner is a danger to the other, people can also request protective orders and other steps to make themselves feel safer.
Usually an attorney is needed to secure a legal annulment efficiently and quickly. The attorney will develop a case and present it to a judge, with supporting information such as testimony about the circumstances of the marriage. The judge will review the material and determine whether the initial marriage was legal. If it was, the judge cannot grant an annulment and the parties must petition for a divorce. Many regions allow no-fault divorce, where people do not need to provide grounds for a court-ordered dissolution of marriage, allowing the court to move forward with the proceedings without the need for extensive testimony or arguments.