The civil annulment or nullity of a marriage or civil partnership is a declaration by a court that an apparent marriage or civil partnership is null and void and that no valid marriage or civil partnership ever existed between the two people. In other words, it is a declaration that the marriage or civil partnership never validly happened.

Civil annulment is not the same as divorce. Divorce is a legal declaration ending a marriage or civil partnership whereas civil annulment (nullity) is a legal declaration stating that the marriage or civil partnership never existed. If a marriage or civil partnership is annulled, it also means that both people lose any rights they enjoyed as a married person or party to a civil partnership.

A civil annulment is not the same as a church annulment. A church annulment does not have any effect in law. A church annulment does not mean that either ‘spouse’ can legally remarry; it simply means that a party to an annulled marriage can remarry in the eyes of the church.

A decree of annulment can only be made if one of the parties to the marriage or civil partnership applies to the court for a declaration of nullity.

Grounds for an annulment

Curiously the grounds for securing an annulment have never been stated in a piece of legislation; rather they have been developed gradually by the courts. At present an application can be brought on the following grounds and whether or not the court grants the nullity will depend upon the view of the presiding judge:

A marriage or civil partnership can be considered by the court to be void based on any of the following grounds:

  • At the time of the ceremony there was a lack of capacity, i.e. one of the spouses/civil partners was incapable of entering into a binding contract. For example, he/she may have been married to another person or in a civil partnership; or the parties may have been too closely related to each other to have legal capacity to marry or enter into a civil partnership.
  • The formal requirements for a marriage ceremony/civil partnership were not followed; e.g. notice/age requirements
  • At the time of the marriage/civil partnership, one of the parties failed to give full, free and informed consent. This may arise from duress, (i.e. one party was pressurized into the union), mistake, misrepresentation or fraud.
  • One party may not have been in a position to give full consent as he/she was suffering from a mental illness at the time of the marriage/civil partnership.
  • At the time of the ceremony, one party was impotent. i.e. was physically incapable of sexual intercourse.
  • At the time of the ceremony, one party was incapable of entering into and sustaining a proper or normal marital or civil partnership relationship. This may be due to a psychiatric illness or personality disorder. It may also be due to the undeclared sexual orientation of one of the parties.

 Some of the effects of a declaration of nullity are as follows:

  • Both parties are free to legally marry/enter into a civil partnership.
  • Neither person can claim maintenance from the other although child maintenance may still be claimed.
  • Neither person can claim against the property of the other.
  • Nullity does not affect the rights of the dependent children and does not affect the children’s succession rights to the estate of their deceased parent(s).
  • Because the annulled marriage/civil partnership never legally existed, there are no succession rights for either former partner when the other dies.

The law in relation to nullity is complex. It may be necessary to get legal advice to establish whether the circumstances for nullity exist.


The Legal Aid Board has produced a useful overview of the process of nullity, including information on the grounds upon which an application for nullity can be based; an explanation of the application process and the impact of a decree of nullity.


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