The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta  

Grounds of Marriage Nullity

Practical Help

gavelThe following are the possible grounds that can be used in a marriage case before a Tribunal.  There is a brief description and a list of questions relating to each ground.  The judges decide each case solely on the basis of whether the grounds are proven by the testimony submitted by the parties, their witnesses, and expert consultants.

If you are starting a marriage case with the Tribunal, the Case Sponsor will help you to suggest or propose grounds for your case.  If you have already started a case, or if you are a Respondent in a case, your Advocate can help you to understand the grounds.  If you believe that one or more grounds may be applicable to your case, the questions will help you in selecting possible witnesses. Witnesses will be asked questions related to the ground or grounds used in the case.

Every marriage case must have at least one ground.  At the beginning of the process, the parties suggest possible grounds and explain in written statements why they believe those grounds apply to their case.  After both parties have had the opportunity to do this, the Judges will set the actual ground or grounds for the case.  The parties will be notified of the grounds.  They may express their objections to the chosen grounds if they so choose and the Judges may then reconsider. The Judges may select several grounds at the beginning of the case; the testimony of the parties and witnesses will determine which is the best ground on which to judge the case in the end.  The parties and witnesses will give testimony regarding the specific grounds in the case.

For many, contemplating the grounds brings a flood of memories, both happy and sad.  In a spirit of prayer and with confidence in God’s grace, allow the following pages to help you understand how a Tribunal makes decisions in marriage cases, and perhaps to help you determine which ground or grounds would apply to your case.

Insufficient Use of Reason (Canon 1095 1º)

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have the degree of reasoning ability sufficient to know and understand what marriage is and what he or she is doing at the time of marriage.  Serious conditions, such as profound mental retardation, certain personality disorders or black-out states (caused by alcoholic intoxication, drug use, or seizure disorder), might prevent a person from possessing or using reasoning ability during the marriage ceremony. If one or both spouses lacked the use of reason during the wedding ceremony itself, this ground can be considered.

Did either you or your former spouse abuse drugs or alcohol to the extent of suffering from blackout periods? If so, did either of you use drugs or alcohol before the wedding ceremony? Were either of you intoxicated, “stoned,” or “high” during the ceremony?  Were either you or your former spouse ever diagnosed with a very low intelligence or with a serious learning disability, or serious difficulty with the ability to reason?  Were either of you ever diagnosed with a mental disability or a mental illness that caused blackout or delusional episodes?  If so, did such an episode occur at the time of the wedding ceremony? Did either you or your former spouse suffer from epilepsy and grand mal seizures? If so, did a seizure occur just before or during the wedding ceremony?

Grave Lack of Discretion of Judgment (Canon 1095 2º)

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have use of sound reason and mature judgment. This means that the person is making a prudent and free decision, after careful judgment, to enter marriage with a particular person, and that the decision is not impulsive or without forethought.  If one or both spouses either lacked sufficient knowledge of marriage or failed to exercise mature judgment in choosing to marry, this ground can be considered.  Because it requires a grave lack of discretion of judgment, this ground may be difficult to prove.

Did either you or your former spouse have extremely little or no dating experience before becoming engaged? Were either of you on the “rebound” from a broken engagement or previous marriage when you decided to enter this marriage? Did you see marriage as simply “the next step” without much consideration? Did the two of you date for only a brief time? Was the decision to marry made impulsively, or without much thought? Did either of you make immature and impulsive decisions in other areas of life (career, finances, etc.)? Would you say you really did not know one another well enough to marry when you did? Was your decision to marry based on some pressing issue or circumstance (for example, a pre-marital pregnancy, difficult home situation, peer pressure, escape from another relationship)? Did family or friends express serious concerns about this marriage and did you choose to ignore them?

Incapacity to Assume the Essential Obligations of Marriage (Canon 1095 3º) 

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have the psychological ability to take on and to live out the lifetime obligations of marriage.  A person cannot consent to something that is beyond their psychological capacity to fulfill.  Even if the condition became known or diagnosed only after marriage, if a person was afflicted at the time of marriage with a serious psychological or psychiatric condition that prevented him or her from assuming the obligations of marriage, the marriage was invalid.  Proof of the condition must be provided, however, and often the Tribunal will require a current evaluation by a mental health professional. Because the ground requires incapacity and not merely diminished capacity, it may be difficult to prove.

Were either you or your former spouse diagnosed with a serious psychological illness?  Even without a specific diagnosis, did either of you suffer from a serious mental illness at the time of your marriage?  Did either of you have any addictions at the time of the wedding (alcohol, drugs, prescription drugs, etc.)? If yes to any of these questions, did the illness or addiction prevent either of you from living out the commitment you made to each other or to your children?  At the time of your marriage, did either of you have any serious sexual disorder, serious questions about your sexual identity, or homosexuality? If so, did this affect the ability to live out the commitment to marriage?

Ignorance of the Societal Nature of Marriage (Canon 1096)

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have some basic knowledge (i.e., not be ignorant) of what marriage is all about.  A necessary element of that knowledge is to know that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman.  If a person truly has no knowledge that marriage is such a partnership, because of tragic or extremely dysfunctional circumstances in his or her personal or family background, this ground may apply.

Did either you or your former spouse come from a family background where there were many divorces, separations, or live-in relationships? Did either of you have the experience of growing up in several households, whether among relatives or foster parents? Did either of you grow up in an institution, such as an orphanage? If so, can you say that there was never a role model for a happy or healthy marriage?  Can you say that either you or your former spouse did not know when you married that marriage is a permanent partnership? Were either of you reared in an environment that was extremely sheltered (to an unhealthy degree)? Were there any cultural factors that influenced your knowledge of what marriage was all about? Were either of you surprised or shocked after marriage by what marriage was all about? Did you separate or divorce quickly after discovering what marriage was all about?

Ignorance of the Sexual Nature of Marriage (Canon 1096)

To enter a valid marriage, a person must have some basic knowledge (i.e., not be ignorant) of what marriage is all about.  A necessary element of that knowledge is to know that marriage by its nature involves openness to children by means of sexual cooperation between the spouses.  Although such ignorance is not presumed in persons beyond the age of puberty, this ground may be considered if one or both spouses were truly ignorant of this fact.

Were either you or your former spouse extremely young when you began dating the other? If so, was this dating relationship the only one before marriage? Did either of you come from a family background where there was no discussion at all of sexuality? Did either of you enter marriage with absolutely no understanding of human sexuality and sexual intercourse? Were either of you reared in an environment that was extremely sheltered or sexually repressed (to an unhealthy degree)? Were there any cultural factors that influenced your knowledge of human sexuality and sexual relations? Were either of you surprised or shocked after marriage to learn about sexuality or sexual relations? Did you separate early in the marriage because of an unwillingness to engage in sexual relations?

Error of Person  (Canon 1097 §1)

To enter a valid marriage, one must know the person he or she is marrying.  In other words, marital consent is exchanged with a specific man or woman and it is essential to have true knowledge of who that person is.  If one spouse made a substantial error in judgment concerning the true identity of the intended spouse, or in other words married the wrong person, this ground could be considered.  The error in question is not about details of personality or behavior, but a serious error about the identity of the other spouse.

Did you and your former spouse know one another for only a very short time before marriage? Was your courtship at a distance? Did you actually spend very little time together, alone, before marriage? Was your intended spouse not the person you thought you were marrying? Did you discover after marriage that the person you married was not, in fact, the person you intended to marry? Did you react with shock or surprise when the error was discovered? Did you separate immediately afterward, or did your marital relationship change immediately afterward? 

Error About a Quality of a Person (Canon 1097 §2)

To enter a valid marriage, one must know the essential qualities of the person he or she is marrying.  If, at the time of marriage, one spouse was mistaken about a quality directly and principally intended in the other spouse (almost as a condition for marriage) then this ground could be considered.  This ground might apply if you or your former spouse intended to marry someone who possessed a certain quality (perhaps of a moral, social, physical, religious, psychological, or legal nature) and the primary reason for entering this marriage was the belief that the intended spouse possessed that quality.  The intended quality must be of such a magnitude that without it, the person would not have married the other.

Was there a certain quality or trait that either you or your former spouse were looking for in a prospective husband or wife (for example, a certain social status, marital status, education, a certain profession, religious conviction, freedom from addiction or disease, freedom from an arrest record)? Did you or your former spouse consider that trait so important in a prospective spouse that you would marry only someone who possessed that trait? Would this marriage have been called off if the other person did not possess that quality? When it was learned that you or your former spouse did not possess that quality, did the other spouse react with shock or surprise? Did you separate immediately afterward, or did your marital relationship change immediately afterward?

Fraud or Deceit (Canon 1098)

A person who enters marriage deceived by fraud, which is perpetrated to obtain the marital consent of the other person, marries invalidly.  Fraud is the intentional act of deception. It can be perpetrated by the other spouse or by a third party, but the end result is the same: one of the contracting parties consents because he/she was deceived into doing so.  If fraud or deceit took place in order to make marriage happen, this ground can be considered.

Did you or your former spouse intentionally misrepresent or conceal information necessary for the other person to make a well-informed marital decision? Did someone else (a parent, for example) misrepresent or conceal information necessary for a well-informed marital decision? Was the deception intentionally done in order to get the other person’s agreement to marry? If the truth had been known, and the deception not carried out, would the marriage not have occurred? If the deceit was later discovered, did it have an immediate effect on the marriage? Did the separation or divorce occur because of this?

Error Concerning the Unity of Marriage (Canon 1099)

For marriage to be valid, both spouses must intend to be absolutely faithful to one another.  If one or both spouses entered marriage with an erroneous belief that infidelity, polygamy, or polyandry was possible, this ground could be considered.  This belief must have been firmly held, or in other words, marriage could not be conceived of in any other way than allowing for infidelity or multiple spouses or sexual partners.

Did either you or your former spouse believe that it was acceptable to have other sexual partners after marriage?  Was there anything in the family background to explain the belief that marriage was not an exclusive (totally faithful) relationship? Were you or your former spouse reared in a home environment where there was sexual infidelity, or cohabitation, or several sexual partners? Did either family consider infidelity or living together acceptable or desirable? Had either you or your former spouse been unfaithful in previous relationships? Were either of you reared in a home in which no religion was practiced, or a religion that accepted polygamy? At the time you married, did you or your former spouse accept the notion of an “open” marriage? Did either of you accept the idea of multiple sexual partners, or “exchanging” partners with others? Were either of you unfaithful during your courtship or engagement? Did either of you consider cohabitation or living together to be acceptable or desirable? Were either or both of you sexually unfaithful during the marriage?

Error Concerning the Indissolubility of Marriage  (Canon 1099)

For marriage to be valid, both spouses must agree to the absolute permanence of marriage. If one or both spouses entered marriage with an erroneous belief that marriage may be a temporary arrangement, that divorce was always an option, or that remarriage was always a possibility, this ground could be considered.  The error could include the notion that marriage lasts only as long as the spouses decide, or only as long as they remain in love, or that the state has the authority to dissolve a marriage. This belief must have been firmly held, or in other words, marriage could not be conceived of in any other way than allowing for the possibility of ending or dissolving the marriage.

Were either you or your former spouse reared in a home with no religious practice? Were either of you from a family background in which there were multiple instances of divorce and remarriage? Did either of your families consider divorce and remarriage acceptable or desirable? Did either you or your former spouse believe that your marriage would not be permanent?  Did you sign a pre-nuptial agreement because you thought the marriage might not be permanent? Did either of you accept the idea of a “trial” marriage, with the understanding that you could divorce if it did not work out? At the time you entered this marriage, would you have said that you could divorce and remarry for a particular reason (for example, physical abuse, adultery, unhappiness, illness)? If you and your former spouse had been told that divorce and remarriage would be impossible for any reason, would either of you have backed out of the marriage? Did either of you clearly believe that it was your right to divorce and remarry at will?