What is a declaration of invalidity?
Our Church teaches that once a baptized couple is truly married, the 'bond' of this union lasts until one of them dies. Even after a civil divorce, we do not consider either of them free to remarry while the other one is still alive. We also hold, however, that various things can cause an apparently valid marriage to be in reality invalid. When a union is irremediably broken we will, at the request of either party, search to discover if any such defect existed from the start, even though nobody suspected this at the time. If such a flaw was certainly present we declare the fact, and the Church no longer regards the parties as bound by the bond of that union.
What makes a marriage valid or invalid?
We believe that for a valid marriage, both parties must make a free and deliberate choice of the full, genuine reality of marriage, and must be basically capable of living that commitment with each other. Therefore we look at the decision-making process that led to their wedding, their understanding of what was involved, and their capacity at that time for such a commitment.
Are the proceedings public?
Not in the way that divorce case and other civil-court proceedings are. All Tribunal personnel are named by the Bishop, and are strictly bound to confidentiality; no other persons except the spouses themselves (and their advocates, if they choose to be represented) are permitted to know what evidence has been introduced. The so-called "publication of the process" is simply a last invitation to those persons to submit further evidence, if they have any, before a decision is given; the acts of the case are not printed anywhere.
Why must ex-spouses be involved?
Primarily because it is their marriage, too! Church law is most insistent that they must at least be notified (unless they really cannot be located), and invited to give their account of the marriage and its problems and to suggest other witnesses, if they wish. Although they have the right to oppose the annulment, this is very rare; even if the divorce was acrimonious, their statements are usually helpful rather than harmful to the case. Both parties are always reminded that we are not interested in blame, but only in discerning whether there is really a true bond in existence.
Why does the Church ever investigate a marriage between two non-Catholics?
While such marriages do not concern us directly, we don't think Catholics are the only people who are really married, or whose marriages are sacred and inviolable. Therefore, if a Catholic wishes to marry a divorced non-Catholic, it is necessary to find out whether the non-Catholic party is free to marry. In such a case, that person must be the one to petition for annulment: only a party to a marriage may ask for its annulment, not an interested third person
What effects does a declaration of invalidity have?
In civil law, none whatever. All such matters as the custody and support of children, property settlement, alimony, etc. were determined by the divorce court and are unaffected. Even in the eyes of the Church, such a decision does not deny whatever human reality was present, and certainly does not question the good-faith intentions of the parties (except in those rare cases where that is the alleged ground of nullity). In no case does it affect the status of children; these always remain legitimate in church law. The principal effect is that the parties, being free of that bond, are able to remarry in the Church if they wish. (Sometimes, of course, there are other obstacles; the nature of the earlier problems may call for special caution about a new attempt at marriage.)
Why stir up all those painful memories?
We know that a broken marriage always involves great hurt, painful to recall. Many persons who have cooperated in the tribunal process, however, report that it has helped them bury the past and face the future with new understanding and a sense of relief. We pray that if you are involved in one of our processes it will be a healing experience for you also.
Is it expensive?
Not really, at least compared with civil divorce. The average actual costs to the Diocese run somewhat less $1,000. Petitioners are asked to contribute $200 of that amount, paying $100 when the case is submitted and the balance within six months.