The Pope Has Arrived! A Discussion of Annulment in California and the Pope’s Reform to the Church’s Annulment Process

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All Americans, religious or not, are in an undeniable state of excitement upon Pope Francis’ first arrival on U.S. soil. As we are bombarded with media coverage of the visit at every turn, the divorce attorneys here at the Law Offices of Nancy J. Bickford find it a fitting time to discuss annulment in California and the Pope’s recent reform to the Catholic Church’s annulment process, announced by the Pope’s September 2015 Letters motu propio.

An annulment under California law and an annulment in the eyes of the Church are not synonymous. The Catholic Church does not give divorced people permission to remarry. So, if a Catholic person wishes to remarry, the Church must find that their first marriage was void before they are free to do so.

marriage-annulment-in-california.jpgIn California, there are three legal options available to couples wishing to end or alter their marital status: dissolution (a.k.a. divorce), nullification, and legal separation. Divorce can only be granted where there has been a valid marriage. Nullification can only be granted if there was no valid marriage to begin with. Incest (see CA Family Code §2200), bigamy (see CA Family Code §2201), and lack of a lawful marriage contract (requires both issuance of a license and solemnization, see CA Family Code §300) would be grounds for a “void” marriage, one that will never be valid in the eyes of the law. Minority (under the age of 18 in CA), prior existing marriage, unsound mind, fraud, force, and physical incapacity are factors leading to marriages that are “voidable” (see CA Family Code §2211) meaning that they are valid in the eyes of the law until the parties seek and receive a judgment of nullification from a court.

For more information on grounds for annulment in California, see our April 1, 2015 blog titled, “Do I Qualify for an Annulment.”

For Catholics wishing to remarry, even after receiving a legal judgment of dissolution or nullification, they must still seek a decree of nullity from the Church. This process has faced a lot of criticism throughout the world for being a slow, expensive, and difficult process, and in some countries it is even considered basically impossible to do. So, Pope Francis’ new reform is meant to make the Catholic annulment process quicker and more accessible especially to the Church’s low-income members.

The most notable changes to the Church’s nullification process are as follows:
1. Now only one judgment of nullification is required. Automatic appeal to a second tribunal is removed, but appeal still remains an option in contested cases;
2. The Bishop is named as the principal judge in his diocese, who is able to designate this responsibility to a cleric if so desired;
3. Creation and addition of a third, quicker, process for cases where evidence of nullity is especially clear, to be decided by the Bishop himself. There are a number of situations where the new process can be used. Some examples include cases involving very brief marriage, existence of an extramarital affair at time of wedding or very soon thereafter, malicious concealment of things like infertility or a serious contagious disease, and more; and 4. Reintroduction of the ability to appeal the Bishop’s decision to the metropolitan bishop (or the Metropolitan Bishop’s decision to the Senior Suffragan Bishop).

Regardless of religious or cultural background, dissolution and annulment can be difficult for anyone. There are strict legal requirements and specific timing requirements associated with these requests. Our team of experienced attorneys can provide you the outstanding counsel you may need during these difficult times and will ensure that your needs are met as we help you navigate through the divorce or annulment process.

Please contact us if you are considering an annulment or divorce from your spouse or if you spouse has filed a petition to have your marriage annulled or dissolved. Nancy J. Bickford is the only Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) in San Diego County who is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.

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