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Pope Francis recently announced the most radical reform to the Catholic Church's annulment procedures in centuries. Instead of taking years for the church to recognize a severed marriage, it can now take a month or two.
So does this mean it's easier for Catholics to get divorced? Not quite. Here's how the Pope's new plan and the legal status of divorce will work:
An annulment, in the religious sense, consists of the church deciding that a marriage was never valid in the first place. Most annulments were granted on the basis that they lacked free will or psychological maturity. In many cases, divorces would not be recognized by the church, and parishioners could not remarry until their previous marriage had been officially annulled.
Pope Francis reiterated the "indissolubility of marriage" in his Motu Proprio (Latin for "by his own initiative"), but stripped out mandatory tribunal reviews of annulments and gave bishops more authority to quickly decide clear-cut cases. Along with speeding up the annulment process, the new procedures will be cheaper -- instead of charging up to $10,000 for an annulment, churches should now only recover administrative costs.
While there are many ways to get an annulment, annulments function differently than divorces. Whereas a divorce ends a legally valid marriage, an annulment declares that there was no marriage to begin with. The legal reasons for annulment are similar to the religious reasons: fraud, duress, intoxication, or lack of consent due to age or insanity. A marriage could also be invalid if one of the parties was already married at the time, and some states will invalidate marriages because of impotency, refusal to consummate the marriage, or misunderstandings as to paternity.
A religious annulment granted by the church may not be recognized by the state and only dissolves your marriage in the eyes of God. If you need to make an annulment official in the eyes of the law, you'll probably want to talk to an experienced divorce attorney near you.