Steven J. Gaba - Rockville Family Law Attorney
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What's the difference between divorce and annulment in Maryland?

The word "annulment" has a certain romance to it. After all, it might be a lot easier if the marriage had never taken place, right? Maryland law does have a process for annulment of marriages considered "voidable." However, it's rarely used and its effect may not be quite what you think.

Maryland is considered a "no-fault divorce" state, meaning that the only requirement before filing is that the spouses live apart for a year with the intention of splitting up permanently. An annulment, on the other hand, requires you to prove your marriage was invalid. The vast Marylanders who decide to end their marriages do so through divorce.

When is annulment appropriate under Maryland law?

Annulments are for invalid marriage, which is not the same as an illegal or "void" marriage. As you probably know, you can't legally get married if 1) you're close relatives or step-relatives; 2) one of you is already married; or 3) one of you has been declared legally incompetent to handle your own affairs.

Beyond those, marital defects may not be so obvious -- they may technically violate the law but not the public policy behind it. These are called "invalid" or "voidable" marriages.

Voidable marriages. For example, you have to be 18 to get married in Maryland (or 15 with parental consent). Suppose one spouse is 16 but doesn't have parental consent. The marriage wouldn't technically be legal and the underage spouse's parents could challenge it -- but only until the underage spouse reached 18. At that point, the underage spouse is the only person who could petition for annulment, and only if it's done in a timely manner.

Similarly, a marriage could be voidable if one of these issues existed at the time of the ceremony:

  • One spouse used force, duress or fraud to obtain the other's consent to marry
  • One spouse lacked the understanding required to lawfully consent to marriage
  • The ceremony officiant didn't have legal authority to do so

If the couple meets the basic legal criteria, the court can grant the annulment upon finding clear evidence the marriage was invalid. Theoretically, it's now as if the couple was never married, but certain obligations still exist. The court can make orders regarding property, child support and even alimony. Any children are legally considered legitimate.

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