Guest Columnists

What Happens in the Annulment Process?

By Msgr. Steven Aguggia
Last of Three Parts

For the past two weeks, I have been writing about the meaning and process of marriage annulments.

How does this play out in the Diocese of Brooklyn?

The diocese has a Tribunal (the Court of the Bishop of Brooklyn) in Douglaston, and its staff is at the service of the people of the diocese.

Who can approach the Tribunal? Basically, the answer is simple: anyone who was married in the diocese or anyone who lives in the diocese or whose former spouse lives in the diocese.

The process usually begins on a local level, in a parish. Often persons who want to have their marriage examined by the Tribunal approach a priest or deacon or a pastoral associate in their own parish. These people will be directed to call the Tribunal (718-229-8131) and a letter with information about the process will be sent to them.

Our diocese has many deacons and others who have been trained to assist people with gathering information and documents, a task that can seem quite daunting. However, with the assistance of these dedicated “case instructors,” it can be easier. Once the information is gathered, it is sent to the Tribunal and a case is opened.

What kind of information is needed? Aside from what you might suspect (baptismal and marriage certificates, divorce declaration, etc.), people are asked to provide an “autobiography,” which recounts details of their courtship and marriage. (An outline is provided to facilitate this). Sometimes recalling these experiences can be difficult, but the case instructor and Tribunal personnel are available to assist. You will also need to ask “witnesses” or persons who knew you at the time of the courtship and wedding to provide their view of what happened.

The process, which takes place at the Tribunal follows. The ex-spouse will be contacted to offer him or her opportunity to offer an “autobiography” and to take part in the process. At no time will the two parties have to have any contact with each other.

Once all the testimony is collected, the petitioner is invited for a “hearing” during which the judge will discuss the situation and clear up anything that is not clear. The respondent is also invited for a “hearing” at this time if he or she has agreed to participant. Sometimes an “expert witness” in psychology (a psychologist or psychiatrist) will be asked to examine the evidence to offer information to the judge to assist him in making a decision. Once the investigation is complete and required reviews have taken place, the judge will make a decision on the case. The parties will be informed as to whether the judge determined, with moral certainty, that the marriage was valid or not.

At this point people often say that they “got an annulment.” This is misleading and faulty terminology, though. It implies that one can get an annulment like one can “get” a new car or a new suit. It is more accurate to say that a declaration is made that the marriage was null from the start. The Tribunal merely states what is there already, the truth. It does not grant an annulment; it makes a Declaration of Nullity. The decision may also be negative, that is, that the nullity of the marriage was not proven.

Clearing up misconceptions, let’s first deal with the length of the process. How long does it take? Recently, Pope Francis made some changes. The whole process is now going to be shorter since a mandatory appeal to an Appeals Court has been eliminated. Additionally, there may sometimes be the possibility of an expedited process in some cases and under certain conditions, two parties agreeing that both want the marriage investigated, for example. Certain grounds also must apply for the expedited process to be used, as well.

While some people have called this expedited process a “Catholic divorce,” it is not a divorce at all. That is because the same kind of investigation into the possible nullity of the consent is involved. It is not simply something for which someone can apply. All in all, the normal process should be complete within a year.

As to finances, there is the question about the fee? In accord with the Holy Father’s wish that the process be made readily available to people, there is no fee charged. The Tribunal previously had a fee which helped to cover the expenses which were incurred in the running of the office and in paying for the services of professionals. As we enter into the Year of Mercy, proclaimed by the Holy Father, this fee is being eliminated. Although there are always expenses associated with work such as this, the elimination of the fee is an opportunity to allow all people in need of God’s mercy, as expressed through the Tribunal’s ministry, to experience it.

The work of the Tribunal is the work of mercy and reconciliation. Those who are in this ministry do it with these goals in mind. The supreme law is the salvation of souls and it is the desire and hope of the bishop that through the ministry of his Tribunal, the people of God are brought closer to the experience of salvation, that they grow in holiness by being able to pursue their vocation to marriage in a Christian way, faithful to the ideals of Christ Himself.

Msgr. Aguggia is the judicial vicar for the Diocese of Brooklyn.

3 thoughts on “What Happens in the Annulment Process?

  1. Dear Editor: It is curious that Msgr. Aguggia says an autobiography is required (for an annulment), but he doesn’t mention that a petition is required (called a lIbellus).
    I imagine that those applying for annulments would be interested in knowing that in order for a case to be accepted for judgment, a petition must be signed that identifies the particular ground for nullity being alleged against the parties’ marriage. The petition must also include the facts and proofs in a general way supporting the particular ground for nullity.
    For example, someone who is eligible for a decree of invalidity due to Canon 1095.2, should explain who suffered from a “grave psychic anomaly” and describe in a general way what facts are going to prove that allegation. Those who are eligible for a annulment because of simulation should show which party “lied” when making marriage vows and never intended permanence, openness to children, sexual fidelity or to do anything toward helping the other spouse.
    Mary’s Advocates works to keep families together before either party gets his or her civil divorce.

    1. Msgr. Aguggia Responds

      Dear Editor: The recent reflections on the ministry of the Tribunal elicited some reactions. Perhaps some clarification is necessary regarding some of the finer points.
      In describing the process for preparing a petition for a declaration of nullity, not every step in the process was outlined in my articles. Some pointed out that a libellus or formal petition is necessary. This is quite true and is an important document in which a person asks the Tribunal to accept a case based on the grounds he or she feels apply in the case. A person will be required to state in basic terms why such grounds are thought to be appropriate. The article wasn’t intended to describe all the steps in the process but rather to offer an overview of the process. The whole process is explicated in the initial meetings with the advocates.
      A more important critique was that it was felt that the Tribunal did not do enough to attempt to reconcile couples. Obviously, it is every priest’s desire to see couples reconciled. All marriages are presumed valid ones until and unless they are proven otherwise. That is why the type of ministry and intervention that must take place for reconciliation, takes place at the parish level. When a case is presented at the Tribunal, the situation has gone farther.
      When a divorce has occurred, it is usually a good indication that there is little to no chance of reconciliation. At that point, the ministry offered by the Tribunal begins and attempts to help people begin anew.
      A third objection is that sometimes couples are together many years and have built families. While this is true, as was stated in the article, a declaration of nullity does not nullify a relationship or a family. It is a declaration that at the time of consent, an essential element of that consent was lacking. Even though it may have seemed apparently that it was valid, it may not have been, something that becomes clearer only after investigation. It may be impossible to tell looking at the marriage from the “outside” as it were.
      Mercy is what drives our ministry but obviously it is at the service of the truth and should the truth of the validity of a marriage be determined, it would be so stated.
      Mercy is not real mercy unless people are helped to walk in the truth.
      Msgr. Steven Aguggia