What Is the Difference Between Divorce and Annulment in Minnesota?

Minnesota’s family laws use several terms that relate to ending a marriage. “Divorce” is probably the best known of these. Others include “annulment” and “legal separation.” How are these terms different from one another? For issues like child custody and child support, the procedures in all three will be mostly the same. Division of marital property could be a different story. The key distinction between a divorce and an annulment in Minnesota involves the question of whether the marriage was ever legally valid in the first place.

This distinction is often misunderstood. Pop culture is partly to blame, with its often-inaccurate portrayals of legal processes like divorce. The term “annulment” can also have different meanings outside of the legal system. Some religious institutions grant “annulments” to members of their faith, but those are different from the annulments discussed in Minnesota family law. In this post, we will solely address the civil annulment proceedings that take place in the courts.

Divorce vs. Annulment: The Basics

Divorce seeks to end a marriage that everybody agrees was valid, at least legally speaking. When a person files for divorce in a Minnesota court, they are seeking “the termination of the marital relationship” between their spouse and themselves. The court must determine that any issues arising from the marriage, like property division, child custody, child support, and spousal maintenance, have been resolved. The underlying validity of the marriage itself is usually not an issue in a divorce case.

Annulment asks a court to declare that what might have looked like a valid marriage actually was not. A marriage that is subject to annulment is known as a “voidable” marriage. The grounds for annulment, discussed in more detail below, all relate to conditions that were present at the time the parties “solemnized” their marriage, whether it was in a place of worship with a minister, at a courthouse with a judge, or somewhere else with a friend who got ordained on the internet. Because these are conditions that can change with time, Minnesota law sets strict time limits on when a person can file for an annulment.

It is possible that one or both spouses do not know that their marriage is not legally valid under state law. If a person lives with someone that they reasonably believe is their spouse, Minnesota may treat them as a “putative spouse” for the period of time from when they thought they got married until they learn that the marriage is not legally valid.

Void vs. Voidable Marriages

Some marriages are entirely void under Minnesota law, meaning that the state will not recognize them as valid under any circumstances. There is no need for either party to seek an annulment from a court. Marriages considered void include:

  • A marriage that occurs while either person is still married to someone else, without a final decree of dissolution of that marriage;
  • A “marriage between an ancestor and a descendant,” such as a parent and child, “or between siblings’;
  • A “marriage between an uncle or aunt and a niece or nephew, or between first cousins,” unless it is “permitted by the established customs of aboriginal cultures”; and
  • A marriage involving a “developmentally disabled person” who is under the care of the state and requires the consent of the commissioner of human services in order to marry.

Voidable marriages are not inherently invalid, but either person can ask a court to declare the marriage void in an annulment proceeding. The grounds for annulment in Minnesota are rather narrow. They include:

  • Lack of capacity to consent to marriage “because of mental incapacity or infirmity,” provided that the other person did not know “at the time the marriage was solemnized”;
  • Lack of capacity to consent to marriage because of intoxication or the influence of drugs;
  • Use of “force or fraud” to obtain consent, and the parties did not cohabitate afterwards;
  • Lack of “physical capacity to consummate the marriage by sexual intercourse,” provided that the other person did not know when the marriage was solemnized; and
  • A person was under the age of eighteen at the time of solemnization of the marriage, or they were at least sixteen but less than eighteen and did not have consent to marry from a parent, guardian, or court.

Annulment Proceedings

civil action to annul a marriage closely resembles a divorce case in most ways. Provisions of Minnesota law relating to property division and spousal maintenance also apply to annulments, at least for any periods of time when either or both parties thought they had a valid marriage. Child custody and child support proceedings are the same as in a divorce case, since the “best interest of the child” does not depend on the exact relationship between the parents.

Where annulment proceedings differ significantly from divorce is in the short time limits for filing for an annulment, among other restrictions:

  • For lack of capacity to consent, or use of coercion or fraud, an individual must file within ninety days of learning of the ground for annulment.
  • For physical inability to consummate, the deadline to file is one year after learning of this inability.
  • For annulment based on age, the deadline is before the underage person reaches an age when they could have gotten married legally.

Once these time limits have passed, the parties must seek divorce rather than annulment.

Family law attorney Anthony Toepfer practices in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He represents people during particularly difficult times in their lives, such as divorces and child custody or child support disputes. As a Toepfer at Law client, up-to-date information about your case will always be available to you, and we will be there when you need us to answer your questions or address your concerns. Please contact us today through our website, or give us a call at (320) 497-4416 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.


Meet Tony Toepfer

Attorney Anthony (Tony) Toepfer began his legal career in the area of business and technology law. While successful in that field, he felt there was something missing. He turned down opportunities, because, as he says, “I wanted to see the faces of the people I was helping.” He transitioned into family law practice, and found what he was looking for.

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