Whether from a family member, online forums or pop media, you have most likely heard of the word, “annulment”, and like many, may have thought of it as just another way to get divorced.
In fact, while they both have the same practical effect – not being married – they are very different legal determinations. An Annulment is a legal procedure for declaring a marriage null and void. Furthermore, it is retroactive, meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to have been invalid from the beginning; in effect, never having existed. A Divorce, on the other hand, terminates a marriage at some specific time after it began but recognizes that it did exist and was legally valid before it ended.
This distinction can be confusing enough, and to make matters even more confusing, The State of Washington calls their legal annulment process a Declaration of Invalidity.
So what can a Declaration of Invalidity decide?
In addition to declaring the marriage was in fact invalid, and therefor void, it can also rule on any of the other matters that would apply to divorcing couples, such as: asset and debt division, child support and parenting plans, spousal maintenance, etc.
It is also important to know that children of invalid marriages are still considered legitimate in Washington and have the right to be supported by both parents and can inherit from both parents.
While it may seem that this process is an “easy way out” of going through divorce proceedings, the reality is that circumstances that truly qualify an individual for a Declaration of Invalidity can be quite rare.
While a Declaration of Invalidity is more difficult to obtain, it can be sought when one or both of the spouses believe that there was something legally invalid about the marriage in the first place. So, why would someone want to get a Declaration of Invalidity, rather than a Divorce, which is much more common and easier to obtain?
The answer for most people is that they truly believe their marriage was wrongfully obtained and do not want to acknowledge it as ever being valid. And since going through a Divorce is an acknowledgement that the marriage existed, they are not willing to do so, even if it may be an easier process to go ahead and obtain the Divorce. So, what must be shown, in order for the court to determine that a marriage was never valid, and thus is void by the operation of law?
It will need to qualify for one of the following grounds:
Incest- If the spouses are closer in relation than first cousins, this is considered incest, and the marriage can be considered invalid.
Bigamy- Bigamy is when one spouse has a living husband or wife from a different marriage.
Underage- If one of the spouses was wed when underage, they may qualify for a void marriage. The legal age to get married in Washington is 18, or 17 with a parent’s consent. It should be noted, if you were married underage and but stayed within the marriage until after you turn 18, the marriage will not be considered invalid.
Incompetence- Incompetence means that one space was not mentally capable of committing to wedlock, whether it be due to incapacitation, intoxication or insanity. Similar to getting married underage, if the spouse who was incompetent when married consents to staying with their spouse after the point of incompetence, the marriage will be considered valid.
Duress- Duress is when one spouse is coerced into marriage against their own free will. If the spouse stays within the marriage after the point of coercion, the marriage will not be declared invalid.
Force- Force is when a spouse gets married to another due to physical violence or threats of violence. As with duress, if the spouse who was forced into wedlock does not file for declaration of invalidity immediately after the threat of force subsided, the marriage will not be considered invalid.
Fraud- For a marriage to be considered fraudulent, one spouse must have lied to the other about a matter that would have prevented the marriage from happening altogether. An example of fraud within the confines of marriage may be lying about being unable to copulate or having an STD.
However, even if one or more these circumstances did exist, the court will not enter a Declaration of Invalidity if the parties ratified their marriage after the circumstance leading to the marriage being invalid has been cured.
As an example, if a person who was intoxicated at the time of the marriage to the point that he or she could not consent to the marriage continues in the marriage for two years and then seeks a Petition for Invalidity, the court can find that the marriage is valid.
If a party wants their marriage declared invalid, the party should petition the court as soon as possible to reduce the risk that the court finds that their marriage has been ratified.
If you feel that your marriage falls under the above circumstances and you are the victim of wrongful wedlock, you should contact a family law attorney to discuss your unique situation, what your options on, and the best steps to take to obtain the outcome you’re hoping for.
Call our office today to set up a consultation to begin the process of mapping out necessary steps towards a better path for your life.