What is a ‘Decree of Nullity’?
Decree of Nullity
is the official name for what Catholics commonly call an “annulment.”
The Decree of Invalidity declares that in a particular marriage an element essential to sacramental marriage was missing at the time of consent (ie, at the time of marriage). Because of this defect the marriage in question was never actually a marriage
as understood by Church law.
As a result, the persons who were parties to the initial bond are free to marry in the Catholic Church.
A Decree of Invalidity does not claim that there never was a civil marriage. It does not assume ill will on the part of either party when they entered marriage and does not declare who is at fault for a defect which renders a marriage invalid. It does not in any way affect the status of children born during the marriage.
What Are Grounds for a Decree of Invalidity?
Some marriages may be declared invalid because the marriage was not consummated, or because one or both partners did not follow Church law in attempting to marry. Such cases would include a Catholic who, without approval, enters a marriage that is not witnessed by a priest or deacon, or a person who enters marriage with a partner who was previously married and was not free to marry.
In other cases, a presumably valid marriage must be proven invalid due to the absence of certain necessary qualities in one or both partners. The “grounds” (or reasons) for invalidity include:
Lack of Discretion.
One or both partners may have failed to exercise sufficient discretion, foresight or judgment due to inexperience, youth, immaturity or pressure at the time of marriage.
• Inability to Assume the Obligations of Marriage.
One or both partners may not have been able to assume the obligations and responsibilities of marriage due to psychological problems, chemical dependency, serious personality disorders or mental illness.
• An Attempt to Deceive
what Canon Law calls “Simulation” ).
One or both partners may have entered the marriage without honestly intending to honor the expectations of fidelity, permanence, right to children, or to marry as the church understands marriage.
• Misunderstanding or Error.
One or both partners may not have fully understood how the Catholic Church understands marriage, or may have misunderstood their own or their partner's ability to live that kind of marriage.
Lack of Freedom.
One or both partners may have been unable to exercise the personal freedom necessary to enter into marriage due to conditions such as force, grave fear, or fraud at the time of marriage.
How Does One Obtain a Decree of Invalidity?
The process leading up to a Decree of Invalidity begins when a
(the person who requests the Decree) visits with a parish minister and explains why he or she thinks there is reason for a declaration of invalidity. The parish minister will help the Petitioner complete the
which contains background information and a brief description of the reasons for a declaration of invalidity. This Petition is submitted it to the
a church court at the diocesan level.
If the Tribunal determines that it has judicial competence to hear the case, it notifies the Petitioner and the former spouse (the
that the petition has been accepted. (As a matter of justice, Church law provides that the Respondent has a right to be informed and to participate in each step of the process.)
The parish minister helps the Petitioner prepare his/her
which is in the form of a questionnaire. The Respondent is asked to complete a similar questionnaire with the assistance of a parish minister in his/her geographical area. Each party is asked to name at least three
who knew them before or at the time the wedding took place. The Tribunal contacts these witnesses by mail when the case is ready for active consideration. The Tribunal may also request records of counseling or treatment for mental or emotional problems or chemical dependency.
When all evidence is collected, the
Defender of the Bond
gives an opinion on whether there is enough evidence and whether the proper procedures have been followed; a
studies the evidence, makes a decision and writes a
A Decree of Invalidity granted by the
First Instance Court
must be reviewed by a
Second Instance Court
in another diocese before it takes effect.
When the Decree of Invalidity is approved, the Petitioner and the Respondent are notified; so are the churches where the partners were baptized and the church where the marriage took place.
When Should You Petition for a Decree of Invalidity?
It is not possible to petition for a Decree of Invalidity until a civil divorce has been finalized. After that, it depends upon the individuals involved.
Some persons choose to petition for a Decree relatively soon after the divorce. This is helpful because witnesses are more readily available and because the process of obtaining a Decree can be part of the individual's healing process. In some cases, a Decree of Invalidity brings closure to the previous marriage and enables an individual to "move on."
Other persons prefer to wait until the pain of the divorce experience subsides and/or they are interested in the possibility of remarriage. There are two dangers to waiting too long: one is that witnesses to the first marriage may be more difficult to contact or may have more difficulty remembering information which would favor the Decree; the second is the possibility that re-marriage will have to be postponed until the Decree process is completed.
What Is the Cost of a Decree of Invalidity?
The present cost for a full formal case in the Archdiocese of Dubuque is currently $400.00. This amount represents only a portion of the full costs of processing each case. The Petitioner is responsible for the fees involved in a Petition for a Decree of Invalidity. If a professional evaluation is required by the Tribunal, an additional fee is assigned to the party for whom it is required. However, no person is ever denied the services of the Tribunal for lack of their ability to pay and ability to pay in no way affects the outcome of the case.
What Effect Does a Decree Have on Children?
The legal or spiritual status of children is not affected by a Decree of Invalidity. Children's legal status is determined by civil law, and children are considered legitimate if their parents were legally married at the time of the child's birth, even if they later divorce. The Decree of Invalidity addresses the
of the marriage, not its status under civil law, so the legal status of children is not affected by a Decree of Invalidity.
In addition, Church law specifically protects the spiritual rights and status of children, even if the parents' marriage is considered invalid.