Although all marriages start with the premise that they will continue for a lifetime, it is a sad fact of modern life that many marriages do not last. The rate of marital break-up is significant and does not vary materially between Roman Catholics and others.
AN ANNULMENT WILL ALLOW YOU TO GET RE-MARRIED
The main difference when a Roman Catholic marriage fails as opposed to that of, say, a non-believer, is that without a formal granting of an annulment by the Roman Catholic Church, the Roman Catholics involved cannot remarry within the Church.
YOUR CHILDREN WILL STILL BE CONSIDERED LEGITIMATE IN THE EYES OF THE CHURCH
The Church presumes that all marriages are valid and are to exist for the lifetime of the spouses. That said, certain conditions must be present at the time the marriage is entered into for the marriage to be considered canonically and ecclesiastically valid. If any of these conditions fail to exist a competent ecclesiastical tribunal can declare that the marriage was canonically invalid from its inception and ought to be annulled. Such a declaration has no civil effect (and generally speaking, legal divorce or annulment must be obtained before the Church will consider a petition for an annulment) and does not render any children of putative marriage illegitimate. This last point is very clear -- Canon law itself explicitly states that children born of a marriage that is later declared null are legitimate (canon 1137).
THE GROUNDS FOR AN ANNULMENT
The grounds for an annulment are varied and quite extensive. Put most simply, the Church recognizes that only true marriage exists only where the parties to the marriage were in a position fully to have lived up to requirements of a sacramental marriage and where such high standard is not met, a sacramental marriage, no matter what preparations for the wedding were undertaken, no matter all good intentions, no matter having a beautiful ceremony, never existed.
A SACRAMENTAL MARRIAGE
Although there are many bases upon which an annulment may be granted, some of the most frequently encountered arise from a lack of due discretion or lack of due competence at the time of the marriage itself. These basically mean that at the time of the marriage, one or the other party did not have sufficient judgment truly to understand what the nature of marriage was or was simply incapable, at least at the time of the marriage, to take on the responsibilities and obligations of marriage.
THE ANNULMENT PROCESS
The process of an annulment is fairly lengthy and involved but is probably simpler than the vast majority of procedures involved in a civil or legal divorce. Although it varies from diocese to diocese most annulment procedures take place on a documentary basis and are considered without in person testimony by the parties. The proceedings themselves are confidential and the hearing itself, even if live testimony is required, is not public. There is no confrontation of parties or witnesses. Generally speaking the person seeking an annulment contacts their priest who puts them in touch with their local marriage tribunal. The person then completes a petition for an annulment together with giving the names of persons who can give written or verbal statements to the marriage tribunal about the facts of the marriage. At roughly the same time, relevant documentation has to be provided to the marriage tribunal. This includes baptismal certificates for both the husband and the wife, the marriage certificate from the Church where the marriage took place and a copy of the final divorce decree from the civil court. (Except in truly extraordinary cases, a petition for an annulment will not be considered until a civil divorce is obtained.)
IN THE EYES OF THE CHURCH, IT WILL BE AS IF YOU WERE NEVER MARRIED
Once the necessary material is before the marriage tribunal together with all the statements of the witnesses the tribunal will consider whether there are grounds for an annulment. If such grounds are found, the petitioner will be notified and a second appellant marriage tribunal will consider the decision of the first marriage tribunal to ensure that it is consistent with Church law. If the appellant tribunal agrees (and they almost always do) the petitioner will be notified that an annulment has been granted. At that time, in the eyes of the Church, there was no initial marriage and the petitioner will be free to remarry within the Church. The entire process can take between six months and two years although you can ensure the process will proceed as quickly as possible by keeping on top of all of the requests made by the marriage tribunal and ensuring that documents are promptly filed and witnesses respond to questions from the marriage tribunal when requested.
WHAT IS THE COST?
The cost of an annulment is generally nominal and is intended simply to defray some (not all) of the costs of the marriage tribunal's operation. That said, the inability of a petitioner to pay even the modest fees required by the marriage tribunal acts as no bar to the granting of an annulment and annulments are considered quite independently of whether any filing fee is paid or otherwise.