In the state of California, our divorce lawyers know that spouses who choose to part ways may or may not know that they have three legal options: divorce, dissolution, and legal separation. Divorce and annulment are the two legal procedures that end a marriage, and there are two different types of annulments. A civil dissolution is granted by a state government after a legal annulment proceeding, and a religious annulment is granted by a church. Both types of annulment dissolve a marriage, but unlike a divorce, an annulment is “retroactive” – in other words, it treats the marriage as if it had never happened.

The information offered here concerns civil annulment in the state of California, and it’s a general introduction. If someone needs to have his or her own marriage annulled in southern California, it is best to discuss the specifics of the situation with an experienced Long Beach family law attorney. What an annulment is, and what it means legally, is something that is frequently misunderstood.

Unlike a divorce, you can’t simply walk into a court and ask for an annulment. Annulments are rare in this state and are only granted by the courts for a specific reason. The judge presiding over an annulment may also resolve the issues of spousal support and property division as well as the matters of child custody and child support if there are children in the marriage. The specific reasons why an annulment may be granted in California include:

  • Bigamy: One spouse was legally married to another person at the time of the marriage.
  • Incest: The marriage was illegal because the spouses are too closely related by blood.
  • Fraud or deception: One spouse concealed something essential to a marriage, like an inability to have children.
  • Force: One of the parties was bullied, intimidated, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into the marriage.
  • No physical consummation: One spouse is physically unable to consummate the marriage, and the other did not know it when they married.
  • Age: One or both spouses were too young to consent to marriage at the time of the marriage.
  • An unsound mind: One or both spouses were impaired by alcohol or drugs at the time of the marriage or otherwise did not have the mental capacity to understand what was actually happening at the time of the marriage.

The requirements for an annulment are precise. If none of these factors apply, it is unlikely that a California judge will grant an annulment, and the alternative is divorce or legal separation. The legal distinction between divorce and annulment is that a divorce ends an existing, actual marriage, while an annulment declares that no marriage in fact actually took place. Thus, under California law, an annulled marriage is a marriage that never even happened.


Most of the marriages annulled in the state of California are marriages of a very short length – usually only a few weeks or months – so there are seldom assets or debts to divide or children to deal with. When a lengthier marriage is annulled, if the spouses can agree on child custody, child support, and the division of marital property, an annulment can be granted in far less time than a typical California divorce. If agreements cannot be reached, however, the court conducting a dissolution procedure may issue the same types of orders that a court hands down in a divorce proceeding, including but not limited to:

  • setting the terms of child support payments
  • setting the terms for child custody and visitation
  • division of marital properties and debts
  • determination of separate property claims

California divorces and California annulments accomplish most of the same goals. Both procedures dissolve marriages and separate couples from the legal obligations of a marriage license. Candidly speaking, however, a dissolution will usually cost less and will be less emotionally burdensome than a divorce. The grounds for an annulment can also determine the timing requirements for an annulment filing in this state.


California law establishes a statute of limitations for each of the grounds for an annulment. An annulment request because one spouse was too young to marry, for example, must be filed within four years of that spouse’s 18th birthday. When a statute of limitations has expired, a dissolution probably will not be granted, and the spouses will need to consider a legal separation or a divorce.

The same court forms are used by California courts for legal separations and annulments as well as for divorces. A dissolution petition’s legal paperwork usually includes a petition, a summons, a statement of the grounds for the annulment request, and an explanation of why the court should approve the request. If the spouses have children together – no surprise here – more legal paperwork will be required.

The non-filing spouse must be served a copy of the complete, filed paperwork by personal delivery (from an adult who is not a party to the case) or by mail that requires the non-filing spouse’s signature upon receipt. In southern California, anyone seeking a dissolution should have an experienced Long Beach family law attorney handle the filing and the accompanying legal paperwork, because any mistakes could delay the annulment or conceivably even cause the request to be denied.


A dissolution in this state usually requires the spouses to meet with a judge. The hearing must be scheduled at least thirty days after the non-filing spouse has been served dissolution papers. Within that thirty-day window, the non-filing spouse can file a response. After the annulment hearing, a judge may deny the dissolution request or may approve the annulment and issue court orders regarding spousal support, child custody, support, and visitation, and the division of marital property and debts.

Some couples would like to avoid a divorce, so annulment is the choice for many, and for a variety of reasons. Some people want a marriage annulled because of religious disapproval of divorce. Others may have a financial reason linked to taxes or benefits. A California family law attorney can explain how the law applies to any particular marriage in this state and determine whether or not that marriage may meet the state’s requirements for an annulment.