Members of the Catholic faith not only have to follow the secular rules of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code in order to dissolve their marital bonds, but also must follow the edicts of the Catholic Church and request an annulment in order to sever the religious bonds of a prior union. The annulment process is directed by a Church tribunal (a church court), who has the authority to render a marriage previously thought to be valid, under the laws and teachings of the Catholic church, to be invalid. The invalidity is not due for secular reasons, which are referred to as “impediments,”e.g., the parties were not free to marry, they were related within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, they were not capable of consent, or they were under the age of 18 years, but because the union was missing at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union through the church. In order for a marriage to be valid under Catholic teachings, the marriage must result from five elements: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they are able to freely exchange their consent; (3) they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (4) they intend the good of each other; and (5) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. If any of these five elements are missing from the union, the marriage may be annulled.
The process of annulment requires the person asking for the annulment to submit written testimony about the marriage and a list of persons familiar with the marriage. The ex-spouse may also be involved in the process, but his or her cooperation and participation is not essential. Both parties may review the testimony of the other, and both have the right to request the appointment of a church advocate to represent their interests before the tribunal. A representative for the Church, known as a “defender of the bond,” argues for the validity of the marriage.
The process time for an annulment may vary, but it often takes between twelve and eighteen months. Fees associated with an annulment also vary, but range between $200 and $1,000.
Finally, it is important to note that an annulment does not nullify a marriage or deny the relationship ever existed, but states that the marriage was not valid at its inception according to Church law. An annulment also has no effect on the legitimacy of children born of the marriage, as that decision is solely dependent on civil laws.
Cara A. Boyanowski concentrates her practice in the field of domestic law and wills and estates. As a domestic law practitioner, she represents clients in simple and complex divorce, support, custody, alimony, step-parent adoptions, name change and same-sex divorce and custody matters. She works out of Obermayer’s Harrisburg, PA office and can be reached at 717-234-5315 or at Cara.Boyanowski@obermayer.com.