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What is the difference between an annulment and a divorce?


In North Carolina, there are two ways to sever a legal marital relationship and end the marriage: absolute divorce and annulment. The majority of marriages end in divorces; it is the rare case in which an annulment is an available option for terminating a marriage. Questions and confusion about the two options are common – due in great part to how annulments are portrayed on television. On TV shows, couples seek an annulment shortly after the marriage ceremony and cite either the short duration of the marriage – kind of like it was a trial period and they can decide to undo it if they decide soon after that they don’t want to be married anymore – or because of a lack of physical consummation of the marriage. Despite what you see on television, the bases for annulments in North Carolina do not include marriage of a short duration or a lack of physical consummation. The grounds for seeking an annulment in North Carolina are as follows:

  1. If the marriage is between two persons who are closer in relation than first cousins.
  2. If one or both of the spouses were under the age of 16 when the marriage was performed.
  3. If either spouse was legally still married to someone else when this marriage took place.
  4. If one spouse is physically impotent.
  5. If one spouse is unable to contract due to want of will or understanding.

So, if you get married one day and change your mind the next day, that is not a basis for seeking an annulment. If you cannot have your marriage annulled, what is the other option? Most marriages that end will end through the process of obtaining an absolute divorce. To qualify for an absolute divorce, you simply have to prove that you and the other party are married and that at some point in time after the date of marriage you began to live separate and apart, that at the time of separation at least one of you had the intention that the separation would be permanent, and that you and your spouse have lived separate and apart for one full year without resuming the marital relationship.

The prospective effects of an annulment and a divorce are the same: going forward from the date that the divorce or annulment is granted, you are legally single and can go about your life as an unmarried person. The retroactive effects are slightly different, though. With an annulment, the marriage is treated as void from the beginning – as if it never happened – whereas with a divorce the marriage is treated as if it was legal and binding from the date of marriage through the date of divorce.

If you have a question about the available options for terminating your marital relationship in North Carolina, you should consult with a North Carolina family law attorney. The attorneys at Collins Family & Elder Law Group are available to meet with you, discuss your circumstances, advise you of the best path forward, and assist you in terminating your marriage.

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