Divorce can only follow a legally recognised marriage. If a marriage isn’t legal or is invalid for some reason, then the most appropriate way to end the arrangement is to apply to the court for an annulment.
An annulment differs from a divorce because it wipes out the marriage, so it’s as if it never existed. Conversely, divorce recognises that there always was a legal marriage which has now come to an official end.
Unsurprisingly, the requirements for obtaining an annulment differ from those for divorce, although the process and procedure are similar.
What is an annulment?
An annulment is a legal procedure which dissolves a marriage. An annulment doesn’t end a marriage; it declares it null, which means it never existed in the first place.
How does an annulment differ from divorce?
An annulment removes the legal marriage contract and confers single status on both parties. A divorce ends a marriage but does not erase the marriage as if it never existed. After a divorce, couples are known legally as divorcees.
Annulment and divorce follow relatively similar processes, but the basis on which they are proven and evidenced is entirely distinct.
In divorce, it’s necessary to show that the marriage has irretrievably broken down using one of four legally defined facts, whereas to annul a marriage, one party must prove that the union is either void or voidable.
What are the grounds for annulling a marriage?
Marriages can be annulled based on their validity; this may mean one of two things.
First, the marriage may never have been valid from the outset. For example, if one party to the marriage is already legally married to someone else, they are not free to enter into the arrangement. A marriage like this is described as void.
Second, the marriage is invalid but can continue to exist until one party takes steps to annul it; this is a voidable marriage. It means that the marriage may not have been invalid from the start, but some event or fact has taken place to render it voidable.
What does it mean when a marriage is void or voidable?
Void and voidable both apply to invalid marriages. Voidable means the marriage is flawed in its validity, but neither party has taken steps to annul it. However, a void marriage is invalid from the start, but a couple remains ‘married’ in theory until an annulment.
To annul a marriage on the basis that it is void requires one party to prove that there was an error in the requirements necessary for a valid marriage. These are set out in section 105 of the Women’s Charter.
It could include a marriage between close family (prohibited in Singapore), an underage marriage, or a problem with the formal wedding ceremony, which must be solemnised by a licensed registrar or another suitably recognised person in front of two witnesses.
Homosexual marriages are also void under the Women’s Charter, as are polygamous marriages; these are marriages when one party is already married to another.
A voidable marriage tends to look at other circumstances which have come to light after the wedding. This marriage will have been valid at the start and could remain valid if it were not for this problem or occurrence.
An excellent example of this is the refusal or inability of one of the parties to consummate the marriage. Another might be the discovery by the groom that the bride is carrying another man’s child at the time of the marriage.
Requirements for annulling your marriage
If you are applying for an annulment because your marriage is voidable, then it must be within three years of the marriage date. However, this doesn’t apply if the application is based on non-consummation, or incapacity to consummate.
If the marriage is void, then no time limit for application applies.
Both parties to the marriage must live in Singapore when the annulment proceedings start. However, you don’t have to be a domiciled resident to annul a void or voidable marriage in Singapore.
A party to the marriage must be able to prove that it is void or voidable; otherwise, the court may not grant an annulment. For example, this can involve some challenges if the basis for the annulment is a failure or refusal to consummate the marriage.
Process for marriage annulment
The process has two stages, so in this respect, it is similar to the divorce procedure.
First, the claim is submitted with the grounds for annulment and evidence to support this. The process includes the following:
- Filing a writ requesting an annulment.
- Attaching a Statement of Claim setting out the grounds for annulment.
- A Statement of Particulars which details the facts supporting the grounds.
- If there are any children aged under 18, then a proposed parenting plan if the two parties cannot agree, or an agreed parenting plan if they are not in dispute over childcare and custody.
An Interim Judgement may be granted if the court agrees with the submission.
The second part is also similar to the process of obtaining a divorce. It considers the division of property and assets, called ancillary matters.
If everything is satisfactorily resolved, the court will issue a Judgement of Nullity. The marriage is finally dissolved, and the couple reverts to single status as if the union had never existed.
If the application to annul the marriage fails, the next step will depend on why it failed.
If the marriage is deemed valid or it’s impossible to prove the grounds for annulment, then the unsuccessful party can file for divorce if the marriage is at least three years old.
Divorce proceedings can only be started for newer marriages if the petitioning party can prove exceptional depravity or hardship. Another option is to formally separate until the requisite three years have passed from the marriage date.
Ancillary proceedings for an annulment are similar to those required for divorce. In both scenarios, agreement must be reached on the division of property, assets, money, child custody and care, plus child maintenance provisions.
Annulments tend to occur early in the marriage; indeed, some must happen within the first three years for an application to succeed. This can make it easier to resolve ancillary matters compared to marriages that have existed for longer.
The property is usually split based on the percentage contribution made by each party to the marriage and the family set-up. Spouse and child maintenance depend upon the financial needs of the parties and the standard of living they previously enjoyed.
Child custody is about determining who has the overarching authority to make decisions on schools, religion, and the healthcare of any child or children of the marriage.
Most courts prefer to grant joint custody, which is usually in the children’s best interests. However, children will generally reside with one parent for practical reasons.
Annulments are less commonplace than divorces in Singapore, so taking legal advice at an early stage is essential to understand the procedure and what’s involved.
The documentation process is also quite complex. A legal professional can help guide you through this, ensure the correct paperwork is submitted on time, and handle potentially delicate matters like child custody and the division of financial assets.
If an annulment isn’t possible, your lawyer can guide you on alternative options like divorce.
Frequently asked questions
Is there a time limit to annul a marriage?
If a marriage is void, there isn’t a time limit for either party to apply to dissolve the marriage.
If the marriage is voidable, then a spouse must apply for an annulment within three years of the marriage date unless the application is based on non-consummation, so a refusal to consummate the marriage or the incapacity of one of the parties. There is no time limit if this is the case.
How long does annulment take?
The length of time depends upon whether the annulment is contested. An Interim Judgement can be quick if the other spouse does not dispute the application, or the case is not complex.
However, there is a requirement of a period of at least three months between an Interim Judgement and the Judgement of Nullity, and the latter can only be granted if the ancillary matters are settled.
What is the status of any children born during the marriage?
Children born of parents in a void marriage are considered legitimate if, at the point of marriage, either or both spouses reasonably believed the union to be valid.
Likewise, children of voidable marriages, once they are annulled, are still deemed to be the legitimate offspring of those parents.