Declarations of Nullity (Annulments)
Frequently Asked Questions & Answers
To introduce a case for a possible declaration of nullity, please contact your pastor, a deacon or the secretary-notary of the Marriage Tribunal.
The following are some of the most often asked questions regarding declarations of nullity and answers to these questions. For more information, please contact the Secretary Notary of the Saint Boniface Marriage Tribunal.
1. What is a tribunal?
A tribunal, through the judicial vicar and his staff, exercises the judicial power which belongs to the diocesan bishop. Church law requires every diocese to have or participate in a tribunal. Tribunals can handle many different kinds of cases, one type of which are marriage cases.
2. What is the function of the Tribunal in marriage cases?
The Marriage Tribunal provides service to those who have been previously married and are seeking Declaration of Nullity, either for their own peace of mind or in order to enter into another marriage in the Catholic Church. The person seeking a Declaration of Nullity is known as the Petitioner and their former spouse is known as the Respondent. The Petitioner and Respondent are also known as the Parties.
3. Who are the people who staff a Tribunal?
There are priests, religious and lay people who are specifically trained for this particular work. More specifically they serve in the roles of judges, defenders of the bond, advocates, auditors, notaries and transcribers. They are all people who are always committed under oath of professional secrecy.
4. What is the difference between a divorce and a Declaration of Nullity?
A divorce is a statement issued by civil authority which states that a marriage has irreparably broken down. A divorce is a civil legal action whereby, the division of property and custody of children having been settled, a civil dissolution of marriage is granted, and husband and wife are declared free by the same civil authority to enter a new marriage with a different partner. A declaration of nullity, however, states that a marriage, as the Church understands it, never came into existence. The declaration is a formal recognition that an element essential to marriage was missing.
5. Do I need a divorce before seeking a Declaration of Nullity in the Church?
Yes. In the mind of the Church, you are still considered to be married to your spouse. Church law requires a tribunal to be sure that the spouses are not able to reconcile; one way this occurs is by ensuring there is evidence a civil divorce has been granted. A Divorce Certificate is the evidence a divorce has been granted.
6. Does the Church consider divorce to be a sin?
No. The Church says that divorce in itself is neither right nor wrong. In fact, the Church accepts that in many cases it is necessary to use the civil divorce procedure to legally protect oneself and to obtain a fair and equitable solution on such matters as child custody, maintenance and property division. A civil divorce, however, from the Church’s perspective, does not provide freedom to remarry outside of the Church.
7. Does a Declaration of Nullity mean my children are illegitimate?
No. Canon law specifically prevents a Declaration of Nullity from resulting in the illegitimacy of children. At the time the children were born, it was presumed the marriage was valid and thus the children are legitimate. A Declaration of Nullity in no way retroactively changes this fact.
8. If I apply for a Declaration of Nullity, does my former spouse have to be notified?
Yes. Both parties have the right to challenge or defend the marital bond.
9. What if I don’t want my former spouse to be involved?
Your former spouse has the right to be involved. Unless your former spouse is cited or legitimately declared absent, your case cannot proceed. If your former spouse’s rights are not respected, the process would be liable for a complaint of invalidity.
10. Will everything I tell the marriage tribunal remain confidential?
Confidentiality is essential to the tribunal; all tribunal ministers sign oaths of secrecy. However, both parties (i.e. the Petitioner and the Respondent (if participating), as well as their advocates) have the right to request to view any acts which are not known to them. This means, at the discretion of the Judicial Vicar your former spouse can read your testimony and the testimony of your witnesses, although they are under no obligation to do so. Due to the sensitivity of some of the information within testimony, names of witness are redacted in efforts to protect their privacy.
11. Can family members act as witnesses?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, family members are encouraged to be witnesses as these are the individuals who would be most familiar with events prior, during and after the marriage. The judges will assess the credibility and objectivity of any witness testimony according to the norm of canon law. Parties are to ensure witnesses are informed they are being nominated and are willing to be interviewed.
12. What happens if there are no witnesses available?
If there are no witnesses, it will be impossible for a case to proceed because there would be too little evidence for Judges to reach moral certitude.
13. What if someone doesn’t speak English?
In some situations, it is possible to have an interpreter present during the interview.
14. Is adultery a recognized grounds for nullity?
The Church recognizes the pain and suffering that occurs in marital breakdown, especially in cases of adultery. However, in a case of adultery, a Declaration of Nullity is not viewed in the same way as a divorce. While adultery may indicate a level of immaturity or an intention against fidelity, it is not in and of itself grounds for nullity. A Declaration of Nullity must not be seen as a reward for good behaviour or a punishment for immoral behaviour. It is a statement that there was something essential that was absent at the time of marriage.
15. How long will the process take?
This question is common and truly depends on the nature of the case. Much depends on the availability of the witnesses, complexity of the grounds, the need for intervention of experts, etc. As a rule, petitioners should allow for 6 to 9 months from the time of acceptance until a decision becomes final. Extensions to this timeline would occur if the case is appealed to a higher Tribunal, either by the parties or by the Defender of the Bond. If such a situation occurs, the case would be referred to the Canadian Appeal Tribunal in Ottawa and would add to the length of the process.
No dates should be set for a marriage until a Declaration of Nullity has been granted. The Saint Boniface Marriage Tribunal cannot be held responsible for any well intended advice regarding timelines voiced by those other than Tribunal staff.
The only circumstances where priority can be given to a case is in situations of terminal illness.
16. What about the new proposals from Pope Francis where annulments are done in a shorter amount of time?
The new brevor case (processus brevior) has stringent requirements. Firstly, it must be manifestly a case of invalidity. An extreme example is someone forced to marry at gunpoint. Secondly, both the Petitioner and Respondent must agree to and participate in the petition. If the Respondent does not respond to the citation, disagrees with the Petitioner, or is not locatable the briefer process cannot be used. Proofs for a processus brevior must be also readily available.
I7. If my petition for a declaration of nullity is successful does that mean that my former spouse is granted one also?
Yes. Both parties are now free to remarry in the Catholic Church. However, in some cases a conditional restriction may be imposed because of circumstances that gave rise to the invalidity of the first marriage. This would then have to be investigated at the time a request is made by that person(s) for remarriage in the Church.
18. How much does it cost?
The marriage tribunal is a ministry of the Archdiocese and, as such, is subsidized by the weekly offerings of the parishioners of its Churches. However, donations are welcomed and appreciated at any time. The ability to make a contribution to the Tribunal has no bearing on the issuance of a Declaration of Nullity. No members of the faithful will be turned away due to lack of funds.
19. I’ve never been married. My fiancé was previously married but isn’t Catholic. Do we need to do anything?
All marriages (whether civil or in another religion) are presumed valid by the Church until proven otherwise. The Church would consider your fiancé to be validly married and therefore not free to marry you. Your fiancé would need to submit an application for a Declaration of Nullity of their former marriage.
20. If I am not planning to remarry, do I still need a Declaration of Nullity?
A Declaration of Nullity is a healing ministry that can provide a sense of closure to a divorced Catholic. In addition, the future may hold an unanticipated new relationship which might lead to the desire for a second marriage.
21. If I don’t think I have a strong case or if I believe the majority of the fault of the marriage breakdown was mine, should I still request the Tribunal to examine my first marriage?
Yes. It is difficult for an individual to decide on his/her own whether there are grounds for a declaration of nullity. That is where the expertise of the Tribunal staff is very valuable. It is wise to let them help you with your petition. It is not the purpose of the Tribunal process to place blame on one spouse or the other, or to fault one or the other. It is their mandate to receive all petitions and thoroughly search for the “grounds” for a declaration of nullity, if these exist. If such grounds are found, the Tribunal would proceed to pass the petition through the process to a decision.
Please also visit:
Archdiocese of Saint Boniface - Ministry to Divorced and Separated