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What is an annulment?

Annulments and divorces are often confused, but they serve very different purposes and come about for very different reasons. Essentially, an annulment (also known as a ‘nullity’) will declare a marriage null and void, not only bringing it to an end but erasing it totally.

Grounds for an annulment

To get an annulment, you need to show that your marriage is:

  • void (ie it was never legally valid), or

  • voidable (ie it is legally valid, but it meets one of the reasons that make it voidable)

What is a void marriage?

A marriage or civil partnership is void if it isn’t legally valid from the start. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (MCA) sets out the conditions for a void marriage.

A marriage is void if: 

  • you and your spouse are closely related (eg siblings)

  • you and/or your spouse married when you were under the age of 18 (or, if you got married before 27 February 2023, under the age of 16)

  • it did not comply with the requirements for a valid marriage

  • you and/or your spouse were already married or in a civil partnership when you got married

A civil partnership is void if:

  • the civil partnership was not eligible to be registered

  • you and/or your civil partner were under the age of 18 (or, if you entered into a civil partnership before 27 February 2023, under the age of 16), when you entered into the civil partnership

  • at the time the civil partnership was registered, you and your partner were aware that: 

    • the correct notice wasn’t given

    • the civil partnership document wasn’t issued

    • the civil partnership document was void, or

    • the registration did not take place where stated in the civil partnership document

If a marriage or civil partnership is void, it is treated as if it never existed. However, in certain circumstances (eg if you want to get remarried), you may need to provide legal paperwork (eg a ‘decree of nullity’ or ‘nullity of marriage order’) as proof of the annulment.

What is a voidable marriage?

Voidable marriages are those which are legally valid but can be invalidated (and brought to an end) if certain circumstances apply. The MCA sets out the conditions for a voidable marriage.

A marriage is voidable if:

  • it wasn’t consummated (ie you and your spouse have not had sex since the wedding) either because of a refusal or the inability to do so (this doesn’t apply to same-sex couples)

  • you or your spouse did not voluntarily and validly consent to the marriage. This could be due to, for example, a lack of mental capacity (eg if you were drunk), mistake (eg if your marriage involves a mistaken identity), or your being forced into the marriage

  • your spouse had a sexually transmitted disease (STD) when you got married and you were unaware of this

  • you or your spouse were suffering from a mental disorder of such a kind or to such an extent as to be unfit for marriage

  • your spouse was pregnant with someone else’s baby when you married and you were unaware of this

  • your spouse was living as another gender or changed gender outside the UK and you were unaware of this, and/or

  • you or your spouse have been issued with an interim Gender Recognition Certificate in the past 6 months 

A civil partnership is voidable if:

  • you or your civil partner did not voluntarily and validly consent to the civil partnership

  • you or your civil partner were suffering from a mental disorder of such a kind or to such an extent as to be unfit for the civil partnership

  • your civil partner was pregnant with someone else’s baby when you formed your civil partnership and you were unaware of this

  • your civil partner was living as another gender or changed gender outside the UK and you were unaware of this

  • you or your civil partner have been issued with an interim Gender Recognition Certificate in the past 6 months 

If a marriage or civil partnership is voidable, it is treated as valid until the date of the annulment.

Time limits for annulments

Unlike divorces, an annulment can be obtained at any time, including within the first year of marriage. However, if you apply for an annulment years after a wedding, you may have to explain the delay.

For some of the conditions that make a marriage or civil partnership voidable, specific time limits apply:

  • lack of consent - you must apply for the annulment within 3 years of the marriage or civil partnership, otherwise you need permission from the court to apply for an annulment

  • living as another gender or having changed gender outside of the UK - you must apply for the annulment within 3 years of the marriage or civil partnership, otherwise you need permission from the court to apply for an annulment

  • interim Gender Recognition Certificate - you must apply for the annulment within 6 months of the interim Gender Recognition Certificate being issued

How do I get an annulment?

To annul a marriage you must complete a nullity application form (ie Form D8N) and send 2 copies to the Regional Divorce Unit. You should keep a copy of the application for yourself.

Note that applying for an annulment costs £593.

For more information on the application process, see the government’s guidance on annulments.

How is an annulment different from a divorce?

To get a divorce, you need to make an application on the basis that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. An annulment, on the other hand, is issued in the case of the marriage failing to be valid in the first place.

Divorces come about as a result of things that happen within the relationship, but annulments are focused on technicalities that don’t just conclude a marriage but erase it completely, as though it never existed.

For example, you may feel that your marriage has irretrievably broken down if your spouse has committed adultery or if you have lived apart for an extended period of time.

A divorce can only be applied for once the parties have been married for a minimum of a year, but an annulment can take place at any time after the marriage, providing the parties have lived in England or Wales for at least one year. The process will incur a fee, whichever path you take, and child arrangements and financial settlements will still need to be reached in both cases.

Both annulments and divorces can end a marriage, but they are for very different reasons and should not be confused with one another. Annulments wipe a marriage from the legal record as it was not valid in the first place, whilst a divorce is more about closing a chapter and moving on.

You should consider seeking professional legal advice to establish which method of bringing your marriage to an end is most appropriate and how to go about it.


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