1. The Sacrament of Marriage: The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a community of life and love, an enduring and exclusive partnership between a man and a woman for the giving and receiving of love and for the procreation and education of children. According to Church teaching, every valid marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament , and thus it is permanently binding and cannot be dissolved. In addition, the Church recognizes the validity and permanence of the marriages of unbaptized persons. The Church teaches that certain elements must be present in order for a marriage to be valid. Some of these would be minimal maturity, a personal commitment to marriage and to the other party, average emotional stability, a belief that marriage is a lifelong and faithful union, an openness to children, and sufficient evaluative judgment in entering marriage.
2. The Marriage Tribunal: Unfortunately, not every marriage, including some that are entered with the best intentions, is successful, and many marriages end in divorce. The Church is aware of the stress and suffering experienced by separated, divorced and remarried people, particularly Catholics, and it expresses its pastoral concern in different ways, especially through the ministry of the Marriage Tribunal. The Marriage Tribunal is composed of trained personnel, and is designed to help determine whether the divorced and remarried person, or the divorced person intending another marriage, is free to have his or her marriage celebrated in the Catholic Church. The law of the Church requires that every diocese have a functioning Marriage Tribunal.
3. Church Annulment: An annulment is a judgment of a Marriage Tribunal of the Catholic Church concerning the invalidity of a particular union. If an annulment is granted, it means that in the eyes of the Church a basic element was missing from the union in question from the very beginning, and that on account of this, the marriage was not valid from the start. The annulment does not deny that a real relationship may have existed, nor does it imply that the union was entered with ill will or moral fault. Rather, an annulment states that the relationship fell short of at least one of the elements seen as essential for a true, valid Christian marriage. Finally, an annulment does not seek to establish guilt or innocence, but rather validity or invalidity. In the United States, a church annulment has absolutely no civil effects. The granting of an annulment will not affect anything that is determined by civil law, such as alimony, child custody, visitation rights, division of property, etc.
4. Eligibility: Divorced persons, regardless of religious affiliation, have the right to apply for an annulment of their former marriage. Persons who are not members of the Catholic Church often pursue an annulment in order to establish their freedom to marry a Catholic. In order to make application, the individual must approach the Marriage Tribunal which has the proper jurisdiction for the case. This would include the Tribunal of the Diocese where the marriage in question took place, the Tribunal of the Diocese where the other party lives, the Tribunal of the Diocese where the party seeking the annulment currently lives, and the Tribunal of the Diocese where the majority of the proofs can be gathered. In the latter two cases, the consent of the Tribunal of the other party must be secured.
5. Initiating the Process: In order to initiate annulment proceedings, parties believing that their marriage may have been invalid should contact their parish priest or another parish minister for an initial interview in order to explore the possibility of an annulment. At this time the person, hereafter known as the Petitioner, will tell the story of his or her marriage, with special emphasis on any circumstances, personality traits and behavioral patterns on the part of either or both parties which in their opinion may have caused or contributed to the failure of the union. Specific facts such as the duration of the courtship, the religious affiliation and baptismal status of both parties, date and place of marriage and of divorce should also be presented at this time. The priest or parish minister will fill out the initial form to introduce the case and forward it to the Marriage Tribunal for acceptance and direction. This person is known as the Advocate. Any communication or inquiries with the Marriage Tribunal should be made through the Advocate.
6. Documents: Petitioners coming for an initial interview should bring a legally certified copy of the Final Divorce Decree, a Church Marriage Certificate for Catholic weddings, a legally certified copy of the civil Marriage Certificate for non-Catholic weddings, and recently issued Baptismal Certificates for the Catholic parties. If these documents are not available at the time of the initial interview, they should be given to the Advocate as soon as possible after it. No case will be brought to a hearing unless all the necessary documents have been submitted.
7. Witnesses: Church Law requires that the testimony of the Petitioner be corroborated by witnesses. Before Petitioners come for an initial interview, they should have the names and the complete current addresses of three witnesses who knew the parties in question from the beginning of the union, and who are willing to cooperate by giving testimony concerning the marriage. Witnesses in a marriage case are not character witnesses, but rather individuals, be they relatives or friends, who knew the couple well and who can testify concerning the quality of the union. The Tribunal will send for the testimony of the witnesses regardless of where they live.
8. The Other Party: The other party in a marriage case is known as the Respondent. Church Law requires that every possible effort be made to contact the Respondent and give them an opportunity to testify if they so choose. Petitioners approaching a parish minister should bring with them the last known address of the Respondent. If this proves to be impossible, the Tribunal would request that they submit the name and address of a parent or close relative of the Respondent, where the Tribunal could write to him or her. The Tribunal will write directly to the Respondents, informing them of the proceedings, and giving them a month to testify, if they so choose. If Respondents do not cooperate during that period of time and do not ask for an extension, the Tribunal will presume that they do not wish to testify and will proceed without them.
9. Children: Church Law specifically states that children born of a marriage that has been declared null are considered legitimate by the Church.
10. Conclusion: When the Tribunal determines that sufficient testimony, as well as the necessary forms and documents have been secured in a given case, the case will be scheduled for a formal hearing. Just prior to this, the Petitioner and Respondent will have the opportunity to review the other testimony in the case. This is called Publication of the Acts and takes place at the Tribunal Office. This review is limited to those who have participated in the process. Cases may be decided by a panel of three Judges, but it is possible to have just one Judge assigned to hear a case. At the hearing, the Judge consults other members of the Tribunal, particularly the Defender of the Bond, who is charged by Church Law with insuring that all requirements have been observed, and that the permanence of marriage has been protected. After the necessary consultation, the Judge will write the Definitive Sentence declaring the marriage to be null, or stating that the invalidity has not been proved. Also, the Petitioner or the Respondent will be given the opportunity to appeal if they disagree with the decision. Church Law requires that every affirmative decision of nullity be sent for a Mandatory Review to the Court of Second Instance, in our case, the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Miami. Once confirmation of the decision is received from that Tribunal, the Sentence becomes final, the parties are notified, and if everything else is in order, they are free to marry in the Church.
11. Time Element: The Tribunal cannot promise that a case will be completed within a specific period of time. Each case is unique, and many different factors may either contribute to or hinder its conclusion, including the ability to secure the testimony of witnesses, and the increasing work load of the Tribunal. The time element can vary, anywhere from eight months to a year or more.
12. Expenses: While the Marriage Tribunal is subsidized by the contributions made to Our Catholic Appeal, persons submitting a case are asked to offer a fee of $450.00 to help defray the expense. Petitioners are asked, if at all possible, to offer a deposit of $200.00 to cover initial expenses, and to pay the balance before the case is completed. Petitioners may pay this fee any way they feel they are able, and if anyone needs a reduction or a total waiver of the fee, the Tribunal will readily honor this request. Under no circumstances will an annulment be denied or delayed because an individual cannot meet the expenses incurred by the Tribunal.
13. Future Marriage: Often the Tribunal will place a restriction on a person’s right to marry in the Church because of facts that were presented in the case. This prohibition will require that the person and his or her intended spouse have at least one session with a professional counselor, usually a member of Catholic Social Services, to insure, as far as possible, the success of a future union. After this session the restriction may be removed or counseling may be required before it is lifted.
Note: No wedding date may be set until written notification is received that the annulment is final, and until any restriction on a future marriage has been removed.