What can cause a marriage to be invalid?
According to the teachings and laws of the Catholic Church, there are a variety of factors that could render a marriage invalid. In some instances, the canonical form of marriage was lacking. Sometimes, the person lacked the freedom to marry, for example people who are bound to a previous, valid union, those who are underage, or those who are close blood relatives. These conditions are called "impediments," since they impede the person's freedom to marry in the Church. At other times, it is the person's actual consent to marriage that is called into question. Cases in which it is alleged that the consent exchanged between the parties was invalid require a formal, judicial procedure. These are the true, formal annulment cases.
What is a formal annulment?
For the Church to declare that a particular marriage was invalid from its outset, it must be proven that some element essential for valid consent was missing. In order to make its decision about the validity of the consent, the Tribunal requires a very thorough and comprehensive knowledge off the two individuals, their relationship, their marriage and their problems. Such cases require a significant period of time and follow a very precise, canonical process.
An annulment, then, can be described as A FORMAL JUDGMENT BY A CHURCH COURT, THAT, ALTHOUGH THE MARRIAGE RITE WAS LAWFULLY CELEBRATED, THE CONSENT EXCHANGED BETWEEN THE PARTIES DID NOT GIVE RISE TO THE PERMANENT BOND OF MARRIAGE.
It is very important to bear in mind that, when the Tribunal declares a marriage “invalid,” it does so according to the Catholic Church's understanding of marriage in its theology and law. The trial for marital invalidity does not impute guilt or seek to punish persons. The granting of a petition for invalidity is not viewed as a "reward" or a "favor" to anyone. The trial always begins with the presumption that each union began in good faith with both parties intending their union to last their lifetime.
How does a petition for invalidity proceed?
A Petitioner must complete a “Preliminary Information” in order to introduce a case before the Tribunal. This form is available from a parish or directly from the Tribunal office. When this completed form is received at the Tribunal, the information is screened in order to determine that the case really requires a formal canonical process and that our Diocesan Tribunal is competent in Church Law to hear the case. The case is then docketed and a case file is established. A second information form is sent to the Petitioner. This “Background Information Form” is a comprehensive questionnaire regarding the two individuals and their married life. This form is to be completed and sent to the Tribunal office, along with the names of those individuals who will serve as witnesses in the case. As soon as the Tribunal is able, an Advocate is assigned to the Petitioner who will receive a letter to schedule an appointment for the formal interview at the Tribunal.
The formal interview — In order for us to gain a thorough understanding of the former marriage, the Petitioner must appear in person at the Tribunal for an interview. At that time testimony will be taken by an Advocate. This interview will be given under solemn oath and will be recorded. Later a verbatim transcript of the interview will be typed.
Documents needed — The Petitioner must present certain documents at the time of the formal interview:
- a recent (dated within six months of the date of the interview) copy of the Petitioner's BAPTISMAL CERTIFICATE (if the Petitioner is Catholic);
- a recent copy of the Respondent's BAPTISMAL CERTIFICATE, (if the Respondent is Catholic);
- a recent copy of the CERTIFICATE OF RECEPTION INTO FULL COMMUNION with the Catholic Church (if either party was baptized in another church and later entered into full communion with the Catholic church before or during the marriage);
- a copy of the MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE;
- a copy of the FINAL DECREE OF DIVORCE;
- a copy of the CERTIFICATE OF CONVALIDATION, if the marriage was originally celebrated outside the Catholic church and later validated in the Catholic church;
- a copy of the MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE for the civil or religious ceremony that took place prior to a convalidation described above.
These required documents will not be returned. Photocopies of the authentic documents are acceptable.
The Respondent — The Tribunal has a serious canonical obligation to contact the Respondent who must be informed that the investigation has been initiated and must be offered an opportunity to exercise all rights guaranteed in Church Law. The Petitioner is required to supply the Tribunal with the former spouse's current address. If that address is currently unknown, every reasonable effort must be made to obtain it. If the current address remains unknown, the Petitioner must describe in writing all attempts that were made to determine the Respondent's current residence. It is only by way of a serious exception to this procedural law that a case can proceed when a Respondent cannot be located.
Witnesses — “Witnesses” in a canonical trial are unlike witnesses in a civil courtroom who generally testify on behalf of one person and against another. Witnesses in a marriage nullity case are simply asked to describe the individuals and their relationship as they saw it. They are not asked to take sides or to lay blame on either party. The testimony of knowledgeable witnesses constitutes an essential part of the evidence to prove the invalidity of your former marriage. After your formal interview, the Tribunal will mail questionnaires to those people whom you have designated as your witnesses. The best witnesses are usually close friends or relatives who can attest to the accuracy of your testimony and provide their own helpful insights. Individuals who knew both you and your former spouse throughout the courtship and marriage will provide the most substantial testimony. At least three witnesses must be presented in every case; you may wish to present more. Witnesses may also give their testimony by a taped phone interview or in person.
Ratification — If the Allentown Tribunal decides that the invalidity of your former marriage has been proven, the decision (Sentence) of the Judge(s) is forwarded to the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for review and ratification. This is mandatory in every affirmative decision.
Appeals — The Court of Appeal for the Diocese of Allentown is the Metropolitan Tribunal of Philadelphia. Both the Petitioner and the Respondent have a right of appeal. If the Allentown Tribunal decides AGAINST granting the petition for invalidity, then the Petitioner can appeal this decision to the Philadelphia Tribunal. We will assist you in making this appeal. On the other hand, if the Allentown Tribunal grants the petition but the Respondent is opposed, he/she can appeal this decision to the Philadelphia Tribunal. We will assist the Respondent in making this appeal.
Confidentiality — The sensitive nature of the information gathered in this process demands a very high level of confidentiality. Information given to the Tribunal is accessible only to those who have a right to it in Church law. This information is never available for any civil proceedings. It may be disclosed only to duly authorized Tribunal officials and those who are duly appointed to assist those officials in the resolution of the case. The parties have the right to come to the Tribunal to inspect the Acts which are not known to them.
In a particular case, the judge has the authority to limit the parties access to information. The parties advocates can review all the testimonies to be certain that the parties rights are observed. For serious reasons witnesses may ask that portions of their testimonies be known only to the officials of the Tribunal. The judge’s determination granting or denying this request is final and may be challenged only by a higher church court in the established appellate process.
How much time does a formal case require?
The Code of Canon Law requires that a case be completed within one year of its opening. The Tribunal attempts to keep within this assigned time frame. However, it is impossible to estimate the length of time required to process a given case. Each case is unique and there can be many variables in its progress. Due to the growing number of cases presented to the Tribunal and the possibility of certain delays in obtaining testimonies, records, etc., a time for completion cannot be specified. Therefore, the Tribunal will never be able to offer a date of completion.
What about setting a date for a future marriage?
In Church Law, a legally married person, even though civilly divorced, is presumed to be married and not free to prepare for another marriage unless a decree of invalidity has declared that the person is free for marriage. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES CAN A DATE FOR A MARRIAGE BE ARRANGED BEFORE RECEIVING THE FINAL DECREE OF INVALIDITY FROM THE TRIBUNAL. No one may initiate plans for a new marriage until a decree of invalidity has been issued and any other requirements have been met. The Tribunal cannot be held responsible for promises or arbitrary guarantees made by anyone with regard to entering a new marriage.
What about the legitimacy of children?
In the United States, there are no civil effects whatsoever to a decree of invalidity granted by the Catholic Church. This means that issues such as the legitimacy of children, visitation rights, custody, names, and property rights are not affected in any way. Children who are born into a lawful marriage are legitimate and will always remain so. Remember that the formal, judicial process of invalidity is only used regarding marriages that the Church recognizes to be lawful — their lawfulness in the Church and in the state is never called into question. Since the legitimacy of children flows from the lawfulness of a marriage, a decree of nullity has absolutely no effect on legitimacy.
What is the Tribunal fee?
When you come to the Tribunal for your interview, you will sign a financial agreement which will help defray the cost involved in processing your case. The fee charged only covers less than half the daily operational expenses of our office. At the present time (June 2017), those petitioning for a declaration of nullity are asked to pay $300.00 according to the following schedule:
$75.00 paid when submitting the form initiating the Annulment Process
$125.00 the second payment is due at time of interview (some like to pay in full at time of interview and that would be a Total of $225.00 OR)
$100.00 to be paid within 30 days of the invoice which we will send when your case is ready to go into the Judgment Phase of the Process.
All checks/money orders should be made payable to "The Tribunal." When a Petitioner has been involved in multiple marriages, each former marriage must be treated as an individual case and a separate fee is requested for each.
No one in our Diocese will be denied the service of the Tribunal because of an inability to pay all or part of the fee. The Tribunal is always willing to accept a petition on behalf of anyone who is unable to meet the required fee. Depending upon the Petitioner's financial circumstances, it is possible to arrange a schedule of payment suited to the Petitioner's means, to reduce the fee or to absolve the fee entirely. Anyone wishing special financial assistance will be asked to complete certain forms which will require financial disclosure. These forms are made available at the time of the formal interview. The ability or inability to meet the Tribunal fee in no way affects the progress or outcome of a petition.
The cost of an Appeal is $400.00 and the fee for Lack of Form cases is $75.00.
How do you protect privacy?
The Tribunal must protect privacy and the confidentiality of the information contained in each case. Therefore, all requests for reports on the progress or status of a case must be placed in writing and signed by the Petitioner.
Information will generally not be given over the phone and no information will be given to third parties. In sending any correspondence to the Tribunal, be sure to indicate the name of the case which can be found in the upper left hand corner of all our letters to you.
Can I do anything to help my case move along?
The answer is YES. Complete and prompt cooperation with all the requests made by the Tribunal will facilitate the progress of a petition. Petitioners should take great care to see that the initial questionnaires are completed as thoroughly as possible, that documents and testimonies are presented as requested, that scheduled appointments are kept, that witnesses respond with their testimonies as soon as possible and that a prompt reply is made to all requests from our office.