FAQ - Annulments
Frequently Asked Questions - Annulments
The following questions are often received by the Archdiocese of New York's pastoral offices. These questions deal with the Archdiocesan Tribunal and declarations of nullity.
An ecclesiastical annulment is a discovery that at the time of the wedding some essential feature was not present, the marriage was incomplete and the Church (competent ecclesiastical tribunal) declares that a valid marriage did not exist. This declaration does not deny that an interpersonal relationship existed, nor does it imply that the marriage was entered into with ill will or through moral fault.
A civil divorce may be the legal termination of a valid contract with release from its obligations. A civil divorce states that a marriage which once existed no longer does so, due to various external reasons.
Similar to the civil government, the Church has a system of courts to handle cases according to the canon law of the Church. Being the salvific agent in the world, the Church has the right and duty to protect the dignity of the sacraments and to safeguard the rights of every member of the Church.
In each diocese the bishop is the chief Teacher and Shepherd for that portion of God's people. At times it becomes necessary for the Bishop to decide whether the teaching and sanctifying mission of the church is being carried out in accordance with the Gospel message, Sacred Traditions, and the teachings (magisterium) of the Church. In this regard he acts as the chief Judge concerning the practice of the Christian faith.
Since the Bishop cannot personally act as judge in all these matters (because of the large number of cases), he delegates certain individuals as members of the Tribunal to act in his name. In the tribunal we have Judicial Vicar, Judges, Defenders of the bond, Advocates and Canonical Consultants.
The Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York is the office (court) designated to investigate marriages (and other cases) that fall within its competence, i.e., the marriage was contracted in the Archdiocese or either one of the spouses is domiciled (legally resides) within the Archdiocese.
Most of the issues presented to the Tribunal for judgement are those which deal with the validity of the Sacrament of Marriage. Persons who believe that their marriages were not validly celebrated according to the teachings of the Church, and therefore invalid in the eyes of God and the Church, petition the tribunal to declare their marriages null and void. The work of the tribunal, for the most part, involves the process of investigating and discerning the truth of such petitions.
In the Roman Catholic Church a marriage is considered valid when:
(a) it is celebrated in a ceremony which is legally acceptable in the eyes of the Church;
(b) both parties are free to marry each other;
(c) each partner intends from the beginning of the marriage to accept God's plan for married life as taught by the Church;
(d) each partner has the physical and the psychological ability to live out the consent initially given to the marriage.
If any one of these requirements is lacking from the beginning of the marriage, then the Church Tribunal, acting as the Bishop's representative, can declare that marriage invalid from its very celebration.
The declaration of the Church Tribunal has no civil effects in the United States and does not render any children born of the relationship illegitimate.
The actual procedures involved in a petition for a Church annulment can be divided into preliminary and formal stages. The procedure begins when a person makes inquiry concerning an annulment through a parish priest, a duly authorized pastoral minister, or some other priest known to the person who would refer the case to the Tribunal. A priest or other official authorized by the Bishop, called an advocate, is then appointed by the Tribunal to assist the petitioner in determining if grounds for annulment exist. If there is a doubt about the nullity of the marriage, the petitioner would receive a set of instructions from the tribunal. At that time they will be told what documents must be procured and what statements prepared.
When you have collected all the required papers, an appointment will be arranged with one of the canonical consultants to help you identify some possible grounds for the annulment and to explain the rest of the procedure.
5a. Preliminary Stage
In order to determine if any canonical grounds for nullity exists, the petitioner must fulfill the following requirements:
1. Petitioner: The initial questionnaire must be completed and a detailed account of the history of the courtship and marriage must be submitted. In this summary, only those facts should be highlighted which have a bearing on the alleged invalidity of the marriage. (Such facts would be details concerning the courtship and preparations made for the marriage, the history of the marriage itself, the difficulties and problems encountered, the causes of separations which may have occurred, and the reasons for the final termination of the marriage).
2. Witnesses: It is important for the petitioner to understand that the word of the parties alone is not sufficient to prove that the marriage is in fact null. The allegation must be supported by additional evidence. For this reason the petitioner will be asked to provide the names and addresses of witnesses(family members, friends) who will be willing to provide testimony. These witnesses should be persons with direct knowledge of the facts. They will be asked to submit testimony about the courtship and marriage in question, similar to that presented by the petitioner. Unless witnesses are supplied to the Tribunal, ordinarily there is nothing that can be done to further the annulment petition.
3. Respondent: The other partner to the marriage in question is likewise contacted. Every effort must be made to establish this person's whereabouts. The active cooperation of this party is not always necessary; however, this person must normally be notified that the case is under consideration by the Tribunal and ordinarily will be asked to appear, should the case be accepted for a hearing. This party, however, is seen at a time other than when the petitioner is present.
4. Psychological evaluation: If grounds for the annulment are based in a way on psychological factors, petitioners will be required to have an interview with a tribunal approved psychologist or psychiatrist at their own expense. The purpose is to examine what effects such underlying psychological factors may have had on the party at the time of the wedding.
5. Medical records: At times it may be necessary for the tribunal to have certain medical records concerning treatment given previously to one or both of the marriage partners. In order for the Tribunal to obtain such records, it will be necessary for the party concerned to sign a medical record release statement. The civil law demands this statement. In some cases the Tribunal may require the assistance of its own medical expert who can help the judge in rendering a decision. (Note: Medical records are seldom sought or needed. They would be requested in cases of impotence or perhaps fraud. What are sought, and should be obtained, are reports from therapists and counselors).
6. Documents Needed:
(a) a recent copy of the marriage certificate. (A marriage certificate must contain the date and place of marriage plus the name of the officiant and witnesses).
(b) a recent copy of the baptismal certificate of the Catholic parties
(c) a copy of the civil divorce (The divorce decree must contain the place and date of the divorce, the name of the one who pronounced the divorce and the seal of the divorce court). These documents should be sent to the Tribunal along with the initial annulment petition. There will be no advancement of an annulment petition unless these documents have been obtained.
From the above information it can be determined whether or not there appears to be a basis for a FORMAL HEARING. When there seems to be some basis for an annulment, a petition will be drawn up in the petitioner's name to be submitted to the Tribunal, with the assistance of an advocate. The presentation of a petition in no way guarantees an affirmative decision by a judge. If, however, upon review it is determined that there is insufficient evidence or that there are no acceptable grounds for annulment, the petitioner will be so informed. With the assistance of the advocate, other possible sources of evidence in the case may be explored or another ground may be ascertained to insure that every effort is made to assist the interested petitioner. The outcome will depend on what develops during the FORMAL HEARING.
The Tribunal is composed of: Judges, Defenders of the Bond, Notaries (who record or transcribes testimony) and Advocates (for your former spouse). With the acceptance of the case, the presiding Judge of the Tribunal (Judicial Vicar) will appoint a judge or judges and a Defender of the Bond, who, in addition to the advocate, will be involved in the formal hearing. At a prescribed date and time, you will be asked to appear and give formal sworn testimony. Your witnesses will also be asked to appear and testify. The witness, as well as the parties, will be contacted by the judge(s). The respondent will also be given an opportunity to be heard (at a time other than when the Petitioner is present). Throughout this process confidentiality is protected.
The Formal Hearing is not public. There is no confrontation of the parties or witnesses. The process is meant to verify the conditions that existed at the time the marriage was contracted.
The Defender of the Bond has the obligation to highlight for the Judge(s) evidence that might favor the validity of the marriage in question.
After the formal hearing the Judge(s) will review all of the summaries and evidence presented, the formal testimony given, the opinions of the Defender of the Bond and the Advocate, and will then render a decision regarding the validity of the marriage. It is the duty of the Judge(s) to make the final decision in the case.
Church law requires that every case which receives an affirmative decision in the formal trial must be reviewed by the Court of Appeal for the Province of New York. This is called the Inter-diocesan Tribunal of Second Instance. The case is examined by a new group of three Judges and a Defender of the Bond. When the Court of Appeal has concluded its work, the judge of first instance informs the parties of the decision of the Court of Appeal. The two affirmative decisions resolve the question of the validity of the marriage.
If one of the parties or Defender of the Bond believes that the judgement given in the first instance is not just, the case may be appealed to a higher court. If the decision is appealed, all evidence and testimony will be forwarded to the Court of Appeal so that a new process will begin.
If the second decision concurs with the first, the matter is resolved. The only recourse possible after the rendering of two concurrent decisions is a recourse to the highest court of appeal in the Catholic Church, the Roman Rota. This can only be accomplished by submitting new evidence. However, if the Appellate Tribunal reverses the original decision, then the case must be sent to the Roman Rota for the final settlement of the matter.
In informing both parties of an affirmative decision upheld by the Court of Appeal, the judge may find it necessary to make a recommendation for counseling or to impose a prohibition. A recommendation is based on the hope that the person will pursue adequate counseling for the well being of all the parties concerned in a subsequent marital relationship. A prohibition is given in those cases where there is serious doubt that a person is currently capable of entering into a binding union. This restriction (vetitum) requires consultation with the Tribunal before another marriage can be celebrated in the Church.
Despite frequently circulated rumors, money is not a significant consideration in a marriage case.
But as would be expected, expenses are incurred in the operation of the Tribunal. There are salaries to be paid to Tribunal staff, costs incurred by the Tribunal for mailing, stationery and telephone bills among many other factors. In order to meet those expenses, the petitioner is expected to bear a small portion of the costs.
More than half of the costs incurred in processing an annulment is supplied by the Archdiocese of New York. Those seeking an annulment are asked to pay only part of those expenses. The actual amount always depends on the type of case. At this time, a fee of $1,000.00 is requested for a formal case.
Inability to pay the entire fee has absolutely no bearing on the final decision. A person is never turned away from this Tribunal because of lack of financial resources. In case of actual hardship, documents must be provided for reduction or cancellation of fee.
Whenever a medical expert is required by the Tribunal, there is an additional fee, which depends on each professional.
Finally, certain cases are not judged in the Archdiocese Tribunal and must be referred to the Holy See, where the amount of the fee is determined.
The amount of time it takes to process a case depends upon many factors:
1. Your cooperation in writing your preliminary statement and the cooperation of your witnesses in submitting their statements.
2. The cooperation of your former spouse.
3. The required court procedures needed to adjudicate the case, including the appearances of parties and witnesses.
4. The number of cases pending on the Judge's calendar.
5. The difficulties encountered in obtaining certain Church, civil and medical records which may be needed.
6. The provision of the Church's law that requires all formal cases be reviewed by a forum of three judges after an affirmative decision has been reached.
Canon Law asks the Tribunals to complete each case within one year if possible. That year does not begin to run until the Petitioner has completed with the Advocate of all the preliminary work required. It is impossible to give an exact time, but past experience indicates that an entire procedure lasts between one and one-and-a-half years, depending upon the nature of the case. Some cases, because of the above mentioned factors, cannot be resolved even in this time. Under no circumstances should a Church wedding be planned until a favorable decision is rendered.
It must be remembered that whatever can be done to arrive at the truth will be done as quickly as possible. No guarantee of a favorable decision or the time for a decision will ever be given. Therefore, in no way should a petitioner presume that his or her case would be resolved within a designated period of time.
The Tribunal Office is open Monday through Friday between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM. When calling or writing the Tribunal concerning a case, please be sure to refer to the case by the names of the parties of the marriage in question (Petitioner's name first, then the Respondent's name and the case number). This will enable the staff to locate the case more quickly. Our telephone number 212.371.1000 Ext. 3200