Henry VIII was so desperate for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon that he broke with the Catholic Church to set up his own and get his own way. The monarch went on to have five more wives.
A few centuries later, Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) of the hit sitcom Friends fussed over how to annul their drunken nuptials in episodes aired in 1999. They didn’t meet with Henry’s success.
If that covers most of what you know about annulments — either religious or civil ones — you can be forgiven. The procedure may make headlines every now and then, thanks to quickie weddings and splits involving celebrities like Britney Spears.
But in reality, civil annulments are rare in Ontario, where there are roughly 30,000 divorces a year. Unlike divorce, which dissolves an existing, valid marriage at the time the divorce is approved, an annulment deems the union invalid, rendering the marriage null and void, as if it never happened.
That has big implications when it comes to division of property.
The topic was front and centre last week with news that heiress Eleanor McCain is seeking an annulment from estranged spouse Jeff Melanson, claiming she was manipulated into their 2014 marriage. Melanson, currently president of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, is well-known in the Canadian arts scene.
It’s a case that family law experts will be watching closely, partly because it’s unusual.
Toronto divorce lawyer Lorne Fine gets questions every week from clients wanting to know if they can get an annulment. But in 24 years of practice, he’s only filed a handful in court because of the strict criteria.
“People inquire all the time because they don’t understand,” says the founder of Fine & Associates in Toronto. “They think ‘if I’ve been married a short period of time I should just get an annulment.’ They’d sooner act like it never happened than be divorced. But, it’s very difficult to obtain, it’s (the conditions are) very specific.”
Civil annulments are not the same as religious ones, which are most commonly done in the Catholic Church, have no legal standing and are usually sought after divorce, especially if people want to remarry in the church.
In simple terms, annulment may be granted if a marriage violated conditions of Ontario’s Marriages Act. For example: one partner was legally married to someone else at the time of the ceremony; one partner discovers after marriage that the other is unable to consummate, typically as a result of a physical condition; or one of the spouses is found to have been mentally incapacitated or unfit to consent at the time of marriage.
An annulment might be approved if a couple married under fraudulent or invalid circumstances, such as an unqualified person performing the ceremony. Other grounds include inappropriate relationships or ages of the two parties. You can’t marry a close relative such as a parent or an adopted sibling, and you must be at least 16, with parental consent required up to age 18.
Civil annulments are so rare in this country that Statistics Canada, which reported more than 71,200 divorces in Canada in 2008, doesn’t track them. When it comes to marital status, the agency classifies Canadians who’ve had marriages annulled as “singles” unless they had prior or subsequent marriages or divorces.
Even religious annulments call for specific criteria and the approval of a tribunal. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, which oversees about two million parishioners, typically approves 100 to 150 each year.
Contrary to popular belief, just because a marriage is short doesn’t make it a candidate for civil annulment, says Carolyn Chambers, a Toronto family law lawyer and author of a recent online post on the topic published on the website Eligible Magazine.
One of her cases involved a marriage that lasted only two days, but even it wouldn’t have qualified and instead ended in divorce.
“Even if you change your mind (immediately), that doesn’t mean you didn’t know what you were doing when you got married and didn’t properly consent,” says Chambers, who hasn’t handled one annulment during her six years as a lawyer at Gelman & Associates in Toronto.
Most inquiries that Ottawa lawyer Jeffrey Behrendt gets are related to immigration fraud, when a client discovers their partner married to obtain residency with no intention of maintaining a long-term relationship.
But even the rare clients that might meet the criteria are usually better off filing for divorce because it’s cheaper and easier, he explained in an email.
That’s because uncontested divorce is a standard procedure in Ontario that can be done by filing paperwork after a year of separation and can cost less than $1,000 without a lawyer. Uncontested annulments typically require a court appearance, are subject to scrutiny and can cost thousands of dollars, says Behrendt, who outlines the process on his legal website Canadian Divorce Laws.
Annulments in the headlines
Here are a few high-profile annulments — and annulment fails — according to Forbes, People Magazine and IMDB.com.
Renee Zellweger and Kenny Chesney
It was all glittering romance when Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger married country singer Kenny Chesney in 2005. Four months later she filed for an annulment, which was granted by year-end. Zellweger cited fraud but later said the phrase was purely legal and no reflection on her ex.
Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra
NBA star Dennis Rodman sought an annulment less than two weeks after spontaneously tying the knot with reality star Carmen Electra while out on the town in Las Vegas. Alas, it’s not that easy. The short-lived marriage ended in divorce in 1999.
Britney Spears and Jason Alexander
In an act of spontaneous rebellion, pop star Britney Spears and her pal Jason Alexander decided to get married in Las Vegas in January, 2004. It lasted 55 hours. Spears, then 22, successfully filed for an annulment on the basis she had “lacked understanding of her actions,” according to People Magazine.
Shannen Doherty and Rick Salomon
Shannen Doherty of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame married poker player Rick Salomon in 2002 after a whirlwind romance. Broken-hearted, she sought an annulment nine months later, and got it.
Rick Salomon and Pamela Anderson
Oops he did it again. Rick Salomon’s second annulment resulted from another quickie marriage, this one to starlet Pamela Anderson in 2008. Both parties alleged fraud.
Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell
Darva Conger got hitched to real-estate developer Rick Rockwell on the reality show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire in 2000. Two months later the marriage was annulled, after Conger claimed she hadn’t known about a restraining order filed by Rockwell’s former fiancée.