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Although Rare Today, Civil Annulments Were Once a Popular Alternative To Divorce

Cynthia M. Fox

As regular readers know, recent columns have discussed annulments within the Catholic Church. One day in the midst of that series, I received a telephone message from a woman indicating that she had just been married on Sunday, but now 4 days later she wanted an annulment! As of this writing, I have been unable to reach her, but her message started me thinking about the history of civil annulments in Missouri.

Although rare now, one can ask the court to annul their marriage as an alternative to divorce. The annulment will be granted if the petitioner can prove that the circumstances existing at the time of the marriage fit one of the grounds that Missouri courts have recognized as a legitimate basis for invalidating a marriage.

The requirements for annulments in Missouri, and the cases that gave rise to them, make for interesting reading that I'll share in a moment. But, let me first emphasize that today there really isn't any legal advantage to an annulment over a divorce, while there can be several disadvantages. For example, unlike a divorce decree, an annulment will not provide for an equitable division of property, or require one spouse to provide financial support to the other (i.e. "alimony").

Civil annulments haven't always been that unusual. Prior to 1973, when Missouri became a "no-fault" divorce state, courts would only grant a divorce if one party or both were proven to have either been sexually unfaithful, or mentally cruel, to their spouse. Someone had to be found "at fault" and the standards for proving that were pretty strict. Unless the husband/wife admitted fault, or there was irrefutable evidence of that (compromising photos snapped by a private detective would qualify), a divorce could be hard to come by.

However, an admission (or finding) of fault exposed that person to the possibility that their judge, especially one keen on preserving marriages, might "punish" the offender by shortchanging him/her in the property division or through an excessive alimony award. This drove many to "contest" their divorce and made annulment seem a more palatable alternative.

For an annulment, the Court has to find something amiss at the time of the marriage. However, there are no laws in Missouri to guide the court on what are legitimate grounds; it is all based on cases decided previously. Some situations are pretty clear-cut: Prove that your partner was married to someone else at the time of your wedding and it will be annulled. Or, if you were both under 15 when married and without court permission, Missouri will likely void your marriage.

Not all circumstances are that straightforward. Claiming that you married "under duress" requires proof that a fear of physical violence, impending or actually inflicted, forced you to the altar. Yet, in Blankenmiester v Blankenmiester, 1904, the Court of Appeals denied a young man an annulment even though his girlfriend's father had "brandished a gun", demanding that he marry his daughter. The problem, according to the record, was that the fellow stood his ground and refused, only to succumb later when the father begged him to "behave like a gentleman because he had ruined the girl". Since the threat of violence had passed, so too had the basis for an annulment.

In Worley v Worley, 1943, the Court of Appeals upheld the annulment of a marriage to a woman "so feebleminded that she was unable to perform ordinary household tasks". It seems that the husband had never met his intended until the marriage, courting her entirely through letters. Unknown to him, he was actually corresponding with the woman's sister, apparently desperate to marry her off. A cautionary tale applicable to anyone involved in a blossoming online romance!

For over 25 years Cynthia M. Fox has focused her practice in family law, with a particular emphasis on matters relating to the dissolution of marriage: divorce representation and mediation, child custody and child support. She is a native St. Louis and a graduate of the Washington University School of Law, Class of '73.

Cynthia M. Fox can be contacted by phone at (314)727-4880 or
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