There is a difference between a legal annulment and a religious annulment. They are two different standards with two different criteria. It's important to understand whether or not you can qualify for an annulment in New Jersey under the law. New Jersey attorney Abigale Stolfe is going to answer some frequently asked questions about annulment.
WATCH: Attorney Abigale Stolfe discusses Frequently Asked Questions About Annulment in New Jersey
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Hi, this is Abigail Stolfe from Stolfe Zeigler New Jersey Family Law Group. Today, we are speaking about annulments. So annulments are a curious thing in New Jersey because a lot of people don't know what they are, don't know what the criteria is to obtain an annulment, and oftentimes think when they request an annulment that the request will carry over to their religious beliefs or church or synagogue in order to nullify the marriage in a religious setting. So one of the things that's important is that you understand the difference in the interface between an annulment, a legal annulment, and that of a religious annulment. And they are two different standards and two different criteria, and that's why it's important to understand whether or not you can even qualify for an annulment in New Jersey under the law. This is separate from a religious annulment. So let's start with, what is an annulment?
What Is An Annulment?
An annulment is a decree by the court; it's a court holding or finding that the marriage that you entered into never existed. So while you may have gone through the ceremony and you may have filed all the proper legal papers in order to declare yourself married, in hindsight the court says, "Gee, I know you did all that, but we're going to go ahead and say you didn't, and we're going to say that this marriage, as it stands, did not exist." And they wipe the slate clean. That does not carry over into your religious system. So while it may be compelling on the body that will make the ultimate decision whether you are declared annulled from a religious sense, it is not binding on the religious institution.
If I Get An Annulment, Do I Still Need To Get Divorced In Court?
A lot of people come in after years and years and years of marriage, and say, "I want you to have my marriage annulled." And what they're really saying is, "I want you to nullify it in the eyes of the church." And that is something the law cannot do. That's a separate process than you would undertake with your religious institution. So keep that in mind. An annulment, a legal annulment, is a declaration by the court that the marriage did not exist. That does not necessarily carry over to your religious institution. If you get annulled, you do need to still go through the court process. It is not a divorce, however. So the specific question here is, if I get an annulment, do I still need to get divorced in court? And the answer is no, you're not getting divorced. What you're doing is you're having a court declare your marriage never existed. So it is still a process that you have to go through, and then the court makes findings, and you receive an order declaring the marriage didn't exist.
Is An Annulment Quicker and Less Costly Than A Divorce?
Well, what do I say in every video? The amount of time and the amount of money relative to the dissolution of the relationship, whether you're married, not married, whether you're looking for an annulment or not, is all relative. It's relative to the debate. It's relative to the emotions of the parties. It's relative to the ability for the parties to come to agreements on various points and various issues. So it is always going to be relative to the dynamic of the two parties, and the two personalities that are presented in this particular, right, your particular scenario.
So when you're speaking with your lawyer about whether you should seek an annulment or a divorce, one of the criteria, one of the considerations you would want to take, is how much time and money, or more time and more money, will one take over the other? Because once you're seeking an annulment, you do have to go through a legal process. You do have to meet certain legal criteria. You do have to prove your case, just like you would in a divorce. It's just that you receive a different order at the conclusion of the matter. You receive an order of an annulment, versus a judgment of divorce. So what do you have to do? Well, there are six ways in which you can have an annulment, and each of those ways has its own set of criteria that you would have to prove. Some can be quick, right? And we'll talk about those. Some are really quick, and some are not. And that, again, is going to go to this cost and time question.
What Are the Grounds for Annulment?
Annulment is governed by the statute, obviously, and that would be a 2A:34-1 and 2A:43-2:1. And there are six different types of annulments set forth within that statute. Some of them are obvious; if you're married to someone else, if you're related to somebody, the ones that are the easiest, right? If you're related to somebody, and if you're not of age to get married. Those are pretty easy annulment standards. So remember I said, time and cost is relative to the facts presented. If you inadvertently marry a relative, then it's probably not going to be too hard to prove they're your relative. If you marry when you're underage, it's probably not going to be too hard to prove you've married underage. So those are pretty simple ones, right?
What Is Marriage Fraud?
The harder one of course is the most common one, which is fraud. A lot of people come in and say, "But he lied. She lied. She didn't tell me she was married in another country. He didn't tell me he had a family in another state." You get a lot of these personal dynamics stories that come in, that really go to this question of, was it fraud of the marriage, or did you just marry someone who misled you, but it doesn't rise to the level of fraud to the marriage? So when you're looking at fraud, we look at the equity within the court, and we look at a tremendous number of behaviors and factors, and really the global presentation. It's typically not a single moment in time, like your age is a single moment in time. It's a course of conduct, it's statements that were made, it's a story. Fraud is typically a story. So you'd want to make sure that you go through and you speak very candidly, openly, and with a lot of detail, about what that story is.
Is the story a lie? Is the story some kind of medical omission? Is the story another marriage, a sham marriage? It was just a joke, right? Brittany Spears' marriage in Vegas, I think that that was a joke. What is it that is the basis of the conduct that would rise to the allegation of fraud? If there's a dispute, that's where costs could lie. Because you could say, "I was misled to believe that he had no other children with no one else, and it was very important to me that I be the only person to carry his children, and he knew that blah, blah, blah. And it turns out he's got all these kids in other places." Well, depending on the global facts and the global circumstances, maybe that is fraud, maybe that is enough that, had you known the real facts, you would never have married this person. And that lie, that omission, caused you to do something you would not have otherwise done. So again, we have to look at the global picture. And again, when you're talking about cost and time, that's all relative.
How Long Do You Have to Be Married to Get an Annulment?
There's no set date. There's no set time. There's no window of opportunity that you miss. When you find out about the conduct, learn of the facts, at that point you would have to then make some decisions. Am I looking to annul this marriage because these facts are so egregious to me that I can't possibly stay in the marriage, A, and B, acknowledged the marriage? Or are the facts not so egregious that I'm going to continue in the marriage, but then later on down the road, of course it gets harder and harder to establish an annulment if you knew the facts for a long time. So once you know, is really when the decision is being made. There's not a statutory window of opportunity. Whenever I say that, I always think of the space shuttle and the entry window.
When you have an annulment decree in New Jersey, there is no equitable distribution. So what that means is, if you're married, this goes to the issue of how long you know about the annulment, if you're married for a significant period of time and there were assets built up and accumulated during that time, whether it was real property, personal property, like cars and art and collections, whether it was retirement accounts or investment accounts, whatever that is, if the marriage is annulled and therefore did not exist, then it goes to follow that equitable distribution would not happen.
So when you're making that decision, am I looking for a divorce or an annulment, that would be one of the significant criteria. Because given that this is not binding on your religious institution, to waive your right to equitable distribution would have to be very compelling. And any attorney with whom you speak would have that conversation with you and say, "This is what you would likely be giving up from a dollar perspective, or from an asset perspective. Is that emotional disconnect worth these dollars, or these assets?" And nine times out of 10, they're just not. The emotional disconnect is not worth the value of multiple years of effort and joint enterprise and labor and shared compromise, et cetera. So always keep in mind when you're having that conversation with whomever you're going to have that conversation with, that a significant factor is whether or not it makes sense to walk away from any equitable distribution.
Am I Entitled to Spousal Support After the Marriage Has Been Annulled?
And then our final question today was, am I entitled to spousal support after the marriage has been annulled? So generally you're going to hear people say, "No". If it didn't exist, it didn't exist, it didn't exist. You don't get spousal support if you weren't married. There are some cases the statute can lead itself to interpretation, could lead itself to saying, "Well, you know what? You might be in that arena where alimony is appropriate."
Certainly, we know that annulment, divorce, or not getting married at all, if there are children involved, that's not going to have any interplay with custody or interplay with child support, custody and child support always, in my picture, always stand on their own Island. That's going to be dealt with regardless of what the claims are on the interpersonal relationship between you and this person. The child is still entitled to time with parents. The child is still entitled to support, regardless of what you considered the marriage, meaning void or not.
So on the issue of spousal support, there are 10 factors the court can consider. There's some case law that we can look at, as to whether or not spousal support would be appropriate in your specific situation. And again, just like I said before with this issue of fraud, it's very fact-specific. It's really painting the picture of your story and your facts that lead to your belief that the court should consider the marriage as not to have existed. Again, this is for a very select few people who would consider proceeding for an annulment.
The vast majority of people identify that the marriage is valid, and therefore they are looking for a divorce. But there are those few. And if you feel like you're among those few, give us a call, because obviously what you're hearing is it's very fact-specific, and you do need to tell your.
So let us hear your story, and let us help you identify whether or not an annulment is the better route over a divorce, or whether you could be giving up a little bit too much by seeking this path. Stolfe Zeigler New Jersey Family Law Group, (732) 240-9555. Thank you for joining us again.