Tribunal FAQs

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT DIVORCE AND DECREEES OF NULLITY

What is a decree of nullity?

A decree of nullity (sometimes referred to as an annulment: but more properly referred to as nullity) is a decision, issued after an investigation, stating that a particular union was not a marriage according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is an acknowledgment that, though the couple married in good faith, their union did not qualify as a marriage, in the eyes of the Church.

A declaration of nullity does not mean a marriage ceremony never took place, that the marriage wasn't civilly recognized, nor that a common life was never established. The length of time a marriage lasted or the number of children born would not prohibit a declaration of nullity.

A declaration of nullity states that something essential for the marital bond to be lifelong was, while presumed to be present, actually lacking when the parties married. For a Catholic, this would mean that they could marry in the Church. For a non-Catholic, this would mean that they could marry a Catholic in the Catholic Church.

What is the Church's teaching on marriage?

Our Church teaches that marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life. By its nature, marriage is ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. This partnership requires fidelity and is a commitment that ends only with death. Christ raised the marriage between two baptized persons to the dignity of a sacrament.

Our Church teaches that once a man and a woman exchange consent, they are presumed to be married and the Church is to uphold the validity of that marriage until it can be proved that that, according to the teachings of the Church, it was not a true marriage.

Is a divorced Catholic excommunicated?

Divorced and divorced/remarried Catholics are NOT excommunicated from the Church. Those who have divorced and remarried outside of the Church are encouraged to seek pastoral guidance to help determine if there might be grounds for obtaining a declaration of nullity of their former marriage.
Can divorced Catholics receive the sacraments?

Those who have divorced and not remarried are free to receive the sacraments. However, those who have remarried without a decree of nullity are not to receive the sacraments. Catholics in this second category are encouraged to remain members of their parishes, to attend liturgies and other parish activities, and to speak with a pastoral leader who can advise them concerning the nullity process.

Who needs a decree of nullity?

Two groups of people do: any Catholic who was previously married and now desires to marry again in the Church, or anyone who was married before and now wishes to marry a Catholic in the Church needs a decree of nullity. (If a former spouse is now deceased, this decree is not necessary.)
What if I was previously married to a non-Catholic or to an unbaptized person?

The Catholic Church presumes that everyone, Catholic or non-Catholic, marries intending their marriage to be a partnership of life that is faithful, life-long and open to the possibility of children. The Church does not recognize civil divorce as a way to end that commitment – a commitment that we believe is binding until death. Whenever a previously married Catholic or non-Catholic wishes to marry in the Catholic Church, there must be a process to determine whether the former marriage commitment was valid, according to the doctrine and discipline of the Church.

Who can apply for a decree of nullity?

Either partner to a broken marriage, regardless of their religious affiliation, can petition the Catholic Church to examine their former union to determine whether he or she is free to enter marriage in the Church.

Are there any civil effects to a decree of nullity?

A decree of nullity is strictly a religious matter. Such a decree does not say that a marriage never existed. Any property rights, inheritance rights, and custody agreements are matters for the civil courts. The main effect of a decree of nullity determines whether a person is free to enter marriage in the Church.

Does a decree of nullity affect the legitimacy of children?

A Church declaration of nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children. At no time do children ever become illegitimate, even in the event of a declaration of nullity.

What are the reasons a decree of nullity would be issued?

In Church law, there are three basis reasons why a decree of nullity would be issued:

1. Catholics are required to be married in the presence of a duly authorized priest or deacon and two witnesses. The rite for marriage is to be followed. If some part of this required form for marriage was missing or inappropriate, a decree can be issued.

2. There are specific reasons why a marriage should not take place (impediments): the parties must be at least a certain age, they cannot be too closely related to each other, etc. If an investigation determines that an impediment existed at the time of the wedding, a decree can be issued.

3. The consent that one person gave when they married was invalid. There are specific reasons why the Church would consider someone’s consent as invalid. Those reasons include:

  •   a person lacked the sufficient use of reason
  •   a person lacked the degree of discretion of judgment proportionate to marriage concerning the essential rights and duties that are exchanged in matrimony
  •   a person was psychologically/emotionally incapable of assuming the essential rights and obligations of marriage
  •   a person was ignorant about what marriage is;
  •   a person was in error about the person he or she was to marry;
  •   a person was in error about a quality of the person he or she was to marry;
  •   a person was deceived by fraud in order to get them to marry;
  •   a person was in error concerning the unity, indissolubility or sacramental dignity of marriage;
  •   a person married intending not enter a marriage as the Church understands marriage, but according to his or her own definition of what marriage should be;
  •   a person did not freely marry due to some force or grave fear inflicted from outside.

What is the Tribunal?

The Tribunal is the Church’s court of law. Among other things, Tribunal judges are trained in the Church’s teachings and discipline with regard to marriage. They gather specific, necessary information and documents from various sources, including the parties themselves. Based on the Church’s teaching and discipline, and prayerfully guided by God’s Spirit, they apply the Church’s Canon Law to the facts of the particular marriage.

Can you seek a decree of nullity from any Tribunal?

Church law says that only the following Tribunals may accept petitions: The Tribunal of the diocese where the wedding took place; the Tribunal of the diocese where the former spouse lives and the Tribunal of the diocese where the petitioner lives. It is best to inquire as to whether you can petition in a given diocese. 


Marriage Nullity: When "I do’s", don’t

What is marriage?

Catholics believe marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish a partnership for the duration of their lives. This is true even if neither person is baptized.

But our belief about marriage — that it is a total, exclusive, faithful, fruitful, lifelong bond - is not always realized. Some marriages do not endure despite a couple’s best efforts.

While affirming its belief in marriage, the Church offers its pastoral care and concern for those who have experienced the pain of separation and divorce. Part of that ministry to the separated and divorced is carried out by the Church's Tribunal which seeks to clarify a person’s marital status as understood by the Church.

We believe all marriages have a character about them known as indissolubility - a bond until death. While civil separations and divorces may settle issues such as custody and care of children, property settlements, and financial support, civil powers cannot set aside this life-long bond.

We believe the Church has been entrusted by God to safeguard the dignity of marriage. The Church, through its tribunals, makes such decisions as to whether or not the bond of a given marriage is a life-long bond binding the parties until death.

How is such a determination possible?

The Tribunal is like a court of law. The people involved are trained in the Church's teaching and discipline with regard to marriage. They gather specific, necessary information and documents from various sources, including the parties themselves. Based on the Church’s teaching and discipline, and prayerfully guided by God’s Spirit, they apply the Church’s Canon Law to the facts of the particular marriage.

A declaration of nullity means that something essential for the marital bond to be lifelong was, while presumed to be present, actually lacking when the parties entered into their marriage. Such a declaration could allow the parties to rightfully marry again. For a Catholic, this would mean that they could marry in the Church and be free to participate fully in the life of the Church.

A declaration of nullity does not mean a marriage ceremony never existed, that the marriage wasn't civilly recognized, nor that a common life was never established. The length of time a marriage lasted or the number of children born would not prohibit a declaration of nullity.

Why is a Declaration of Nullity possible?

The Church believes that a person must be sufficiently prepared to marry. A person must be free, have achieved sufficient maturity to live married life, have an accurate knowledge about the reality that marriage is, have reasonably full and sufficient knowledge about their prospective spouse, exercise due discretion in making the decision to enter the marriage, and be capable of living out the day-to-day obligations that are essential to marriage.

Marriage involves a commitment to love, a commitment to a community of life and love, a commitment to the elements and properties of marriage (permanence, fidelity, an openness to children, responsible parenthood, and Christian faith for those who are baptized).

When one of these is lacking at the time the couple entered into the marriage, the bond may not be a life long bond and a tribunal could give a declaration of nullity.

What basic steps are involved in this determination?

The length of time in the process varies from case to case. Cases are processed in the order they are received. The process involves the person seeking the declaration in providing a narrative that speaks about their background, their former spouse’s background, the courtship, marital life and circumstances surrounding the divorce. Their former spouse will be contacted and asked to provide the same information from their perspective. Several witnesses, usually family members, will also be contacted to provide supportive information as well. Any decision made by this tribunal will automatically go to another diocesan tribunal for a mandatory review.

If there are difficulties with the case, the matter will be discussed with the petitioner by a person assigned to help them, known as a procurator. These procurators can be contacted through your parish. 

If a decision in favor of nullity is made, unless it is appealed, the parties are notified and, following the instructions in the decree of nullity, they are free to begin preparation to remarry in the Church.

Remember, at no time is a separated, divorced, or remarried person ever excommunicated from the Church, whether they receive a decree of nullity or not.

What about instructions before remarriage?

The Church wishes to be certain those factors which led to the declaration of nullity of the previous marriage are no longer present. Pastoral or professional counseling may be recommended or required in addition to the Church's other premarital preparation.

What about children?

A declaration of nullity is strictly a Church matter. At no time do children ever become illegitimate, even in the event of a declaration of nullity.

What is the new Bishop’s process, and what are the qualifications for its use?

Certain procedural steps were changed or eliminated.
Three strict qualifications apply:
a. Both spouses must consent by signature to the process.
b. The facts supporting the case must be obvious according to the marriage law of the Church.
c. All the facts that support the nullity of the marriage such as documents and the testimony of parties and witnesses must be readily accessible and available. Even with this, the time necessary will vary from case to case. Once collected, all the material is submitted to the Bishop for a decision.

Why is it important for both spouses to consent to the Bishop’s process?

This requirement helps protect the right of both spouses to defend the validity of their marriage. However, just because both spouses believe that the marriage is invalid does not mean that a declaration of nullity is automatic or guaranteed. This is not true, and has never been true. The facts of the case, and not the spouses' agreement or disagreement on the matter, determine whether the marriage has been proven invalid.

How does the Bishop’s process work?

First, the parties (or one of them with the consent of the other) submit an application for a declaration of nullity, which in addition to all the information normally contained in a petition, proposes why the marriage is null, and what evidence supports that. There is no guarantee that a case will qualify for the shorter process. If the case is admitted to the shorter process, the Tribunal issues a decree stating the possible reasons for nullity that will be investigated, and names a Tribunal official to gather the evidence and an assessor (another official who advises the Bishop). The parties provide additional information regarding the marriage and information is gathered from witnesses. Then Defender of the Bond and the parties have fifteen days to present further information. After this, the case is presented to the Bishop for judgment. If the Bishop has moral certitude that the marriage is invalid, he will issue a decision declaring the nullity of the marriage. If he is not morally certain, the case reverts to the Formal process. The parties and the Defender of the Bond have fifteen days to appeal the Bishop's affirmative decision. Please remember that in this process, like the ordinary process, there is no guarantee of an affirmative decision. Therefore a wedding in the Catholic Church should NOT be scheduled, even tentatively, until an affirmative decision, free from restriction, is issued.

How long does the Bishop’s process take?

A number of news outlets reported that the shorter process will take 45 days. This number is inaccurate. The legal time-requirements for the process are actually closer to four months, without the possibility of delays such as witnesses not responding. No matter how strong the case, nobody should expect to get a declaration of nullity in 45 days. 

What is the cost for a Declaration of Nullity?

In the Diocese of Saginaw, the cost of processing a case is paid for from funds collected during the annual Catholic Services Appeal (CSA). All members of the diocese are encouraged to support the work of the Church by contributing to the CSA. No one is denied or discriminated against who is unable to make a contribution to CSA.

What if I should need more help?

If you have any further questions or need assistance in applying for a declaration of nullity, please contact your parish pastoral leadership. The Tribunal is also always ready to be of assistance and can be contacted by telephone at (989) 797-6623.