Girl Smarts What's the difference between a divorce and an annulment?

Everything you need to know about legally uncoupling.

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The process of breaking up a marriage is often a nuanced one (remember Ross and Rachel's complicated split after that Vegas wedding?).

It begins with answering the question: Should I file for an annulment or a divorce? The first option results in a court ruling that you were never married in the first place, while the second is more about dividing up the assets of a marriage. Confused? Don't worry, we got a divorce lawyer to clear things up.

For starters, while specific laws vary from state-to-state, in most places the process of filing for either type of split is actually the same. "The only difference is which box is checked on the petition," says Ariel Sosna, partner at Van Voorhis and Sosna, LLP and certified family law specialist. "Legally, however, they are very different." Here, she breaks down those differences:

IF YOU'RE CONSIDERING AN ANNULMENT: 

For an annulment to be considered, you have to have a good reason for why the marriage was never valid—and that can be complicated. "It is not just an easy way to end a very short marriage," says Sosna. To qualify, you have to meet one (or more) of four conditions: bigamy (one spouse was underage at the time of marriage), insanity, fraud (that led to the marriage taking place), or force (or being legally incapable of entering into the marriage). Since you have to prove one of those caveats, that means "there has to be a trial in court," says Sosna.

 

So why bother going through all that? Some people do it to honor religious beliefs that frown on remarrying once you've been divorced. But for others, it's ideal because, since you're arguing that the marriage never happened, "there is no spousal support or community property to divide," says Sosna. In other words, no fighting in front of a judge about who gets to keep the apartment—your assets are separate.

IF YOU'RE CONSIDERING A DIVORCE: 

"For the vast majority of people, divorce makes more sense," Sosna says. The process of getting one is actually much simpler—especially if both parties are in agreement about the split.

Many states have what are called no-fault divorce laws, which means you don't have to provide any grounds for the split—you can file just as easily as you might have spontaneously decided to get married in Vegas. In those no-fault states, "either spouse is entitled to a divorce just because he or she wants it," says Sosna.

However, in states with fault divorce laws, you still have to meet certain conditions and prove you have grounds for the split, just like with an annulment. These grounds can vary from state to state, but typically include abandonment, adultery, bigamy, and domestic violence. To file a fault divorce, you'll have to take your case before a judge.

Conversely, in a no-fault divorce, which usually simply cite "irreconcilable differences" as the reason for the split, no court time is necessary if you and your partner can reach an agreement about the terms of your split on your own.

That said, a small minority of no-fault divorces do end up going to trial. If you and your spouse can't agree on any of the terms—like how to split up your assets, determine spousal support, or sharing custody of your kids—on your own or with a lawyer or mediator outside of court, that's called a contested divorce. In that case, you and your lawyers will have to head to the courthouse.

Still not sure which option is right for you? Talk to a lawyer. "A family law attorney is most needed whenever the situation feels to difficult to handle alone," says Sosna. That could mean anything from the forms being confusing, to needing a mediator when communication breaks down between you and your partner. When in doubt, a family law expert can help show you the way out.

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