In some cases couples who divorce will ask the church of their particular faith to grant an annulment of their previous marriage. Whether or not to grant such a request is always at the discretion of the church and is purely a matter of the ecclesiastic law of that particular faith and, as such, cannot be ordered by a civil court. There are, however, secular matters that must be satisfied before a church annulment should even be considered.
Fist of all, a church annulment cannot serve as a divorce. A divorce is a civil matter that is subject to the laws of the state where the couple resides at the time the divorce petition is filed. If there has been no legally finalized divorce or annulment then, in the eyes of the law, any subsequent marriage by either party would be considered bigamy and thus an invalid marriage.
A civil divorce or a civil annulment is also necessary to settle matters such as the division of marital property and, more importantly, to decide which parent will be given the responsibility of child custody and which parent will be responsible for the payment of child support and/or spousal support (alimony). Although a church or other religious body may have teachings regarding these matters, a church edict is not enforceable by a civil court or by any law enforcement agency.
Annulment in the Roman and Orthodox Churches
“Annulment” in the Roman Church and “Ecclesiastic Divorce” in the Eastern Church are similar to each other except for the finer points of their interpretations of scripture. Once past these theological issues the procedures are basically the same. A church tribunal (court) will convene and the spouse requesting the annulment will present their case regarding why the annulment should be granted. The other spouse may or may not be present and may not have been notified of the proceedings. In either case, the tribunal will consider the evidence presented in the light of church law and, if there is no problem with church doctrine, issue the requested annulment.
Annulment in the Protestant Churches
As a general rule, most Protestant churches do not issue annulments and accept the actions of the civil courts as the final word on a marriage and see no reason that either party should be prohibited from remarrying. If permitted by the civil law of a particular jurisdiction, and if a legally valid reason exists, an annulment may be preferable to a divorce in some religious communities.
Annulment in the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) Church
The LDS Church discourages divorce but will accept it after the couple goes through “counseling” by a local Church leader but are unable to reconcile. There is a doctrine that is unique to the LDS Church that is referred to as an “unsealing” of a marriage that was “sealed” for eternity in a Mormon Temple. Interestingly, only the woman is required to have been “unsealed” before remarrying.
Annulment in Islam
According to Islamic law, a husband may divorce his spouse whenever he wishes and without having to justify his decision to divorce, a practice that is not permitted to women. A woman can, but only in certain circumstances, ask a religious court to annul her marriage. Whether this request is granted is largely dependent on the particular beliefs of the Islamic community in which the annulment request is made.
Unless obtained through a civil proceeding, an annulment is not the same as a legal divorce in the eyes of the secular authorities. Annulments issued through church courts or similar ecclesiastic bodies have no authority outside the body of the church issuing the annulment decree and are not an alternative to divorce.