The annulment process begins when a party petitions the Tribunal for a declaration of nullity by challenging the validity of his/her marriage. The party who initiates the process is referred to as the Petitioner; the other party is referred to as the Respondent. The Tribunal then conducts an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the marriage, most especially when the couple exchanged their vows. The investigation seeks to establish whether there was ever a marital bond as understood by the Catholic Church. If not, the marriage is considered invalid. A declaration of nullity does not dissolve a bond which already exists. For this reason, an annulment cannot be considered a Catholic divorce.
Step 1: To petition for an annulment, contact the nullity minister at your parish or your pastor
You and the nullity minister will set up a time to meet and go over the procedures to submit your case. These are some of the items you will need:
- Baptismal certificates for both parties in the marriage, if applicable
- For Catholic parties, we will need a new Baptismal Certificate issued within the last 6 months from the Parish of Baptism.
- A certified copy of the Marriage License
- A certified copy of the Divorce Decree
- Abstracts issued by the State are not acceptable
You will also be asked to complete a Petitioner questionnaire. This is an investigation, so be as detailed as possible, avoiding yes or no answers. The more detailed your testimony is, the stronger your case will be. This testimony will also determine on what grounds the case will be submitted. Grounds for annulment are the reason(s) why the party believes the marriage is invalid. The nullity minister will assist you in suggesting the grounds.
Another very important aspect in submitting your case to the Tribunal is your witnesses. We require that you submit at least 2 witnesses; we prefer 3 or more. The more witnesses you have, the easier it is for the court to come to a decision in your case. Furthermore, these witnesses should be people who know you well and can give testimony regarding your courtship, the time of the wedding, and the life of the marriage. Please tell your witnesses that you have submitted their names to the Tribunal.
Step 2: Petition is forwarded to the Tribunal
Once all the paperwork is complete, the nullity minister will submit the case to the Tribunal. The Tribunal will then decide if it has competency to hear the case. In Canon Law, competency refers to jurisdiction, and the consequent ability to hear a case. A Tribunal may have competency in four ways:
- It is the Diocese of the place in which the marriage was celebrated.
- It is the Diocese of the place in which the Respondent lives.
- It is the Diocese of the place in which the Petitioner lives, provided that both parties live in the same Episcopal Conference and the Judicial Vicar of the Respondent's diocese gives his consent.
- It is the Diocese of the place in which most of the proofs must be collected, provided that consent is given by the Judicial Vicar of the Respondent.
Once the Tribunal determines competency, the case is accepted. A judge and case coordinator are then assigned to the case.
Step 3: The Respondent is contacted
At this stage of the annulment process, the Respondent must be cited. As a party to the marriage, he/she must be contacted about the investigation of the marriage. He/she has a right to:
- Participate - but does not have to
- Read testimony
- Provide testimony
- Provide witnesses
However, you do not have to have any contact with the Respondent. The Tribunal communicates with him/her. We only ask that you provide us with any contact information you might have for him/her.
Step 4: Evidence gathering
After the grounds are accepted, the case is moved to the evidence gathering phase. This is when questionnaires are sent to the named witnesses and the Respondent if he/she is participating. Then, the Tribunal waits for the completed questionnaires. Cases are often delayed because the witnesses do not respond in a timely manner. An auditor, a person assigned to further investigate and gather supplemental evidence, will be assigned if the testimony is weak. This process can also significantly delay an annulment case. Therefore, be sure your witnesses are punctual and very thorough in their answers!
Step 5: Publication of the Acts
Now that all of the testimony has been collected, the Acts, or evidence, are published. This does not mean that they are open to the public domain. Rather, the Petitioner and Respondent have the right to read all of the acts gathered regarding this case. If there is a question of confidentiality, the person's name on the testimony may be removed. But in order for testimony to be used by the judge(s) in reaching a final decision, the witness must allow both of the parties to read it.
Step 6: Decision
The judge(s) now examines the evidence to determine whether the marriage was valid. In every petition for an annulment, the marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise. The judge(s) must reach moral certitude, a high burden of proof, to justify that the marriage was, in fact, invalid. The case can receive an Affirmative decision, meaning it was determined the marriage was invalid, or a Negative decision, meaning the presumption that the marriage is valid was not overturned and the marriage consent was valid.
Step 7: Second Instance and Appeals
If the judge(s) renders an "Affirmative" decision, the case is automatically sent to a second court, or appellate court, for review. Canon Law requires that every affirmative decision be ratified by an appellate court.
There are three possible outcomes when a case is sent to an appellate court for review. The court can:
- Ratify the decision
- Give it a negative. This means that they believe the marriage was valid.
- Open it to a new case if they feel the first investigation was insufficient.
If the appellate court also gives an Affirmative, both parties are now free to marry. But, if the case receives a Negative, the Church still considers these parties to be married and they are not free to marry another party. However, an appeal of their decision is possible.
If the first instance judge(s) renders a "Negative" decision, the Church still considers these parties to be married and they are not free to marry another party. The Petitioner or the Respondent may appeal this decision to a higher court.