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Annulment and the “Relation Back” Doctrine

In the United States, a party wishing to annul his or her marriage does so with a goal of having a court nullify the marriage as if it never existed between the spouses. Individuals who have their marriages annulled have a status similar to that of an unmarried person and thus will be able to marry again. Annulment proceedings are subject to certain legal grounds like fraud, bigamy, and insanity. Accordingly, married persons considering annulment as a means to end a marital relationship should be aware of their individual state’s statutory requirements for obtaining an annulment.

By its legal definition, the “relation back doctrine” enables a plaintiff to correct a pleading error, by adding either a new claim or a new party, after the expiration of the statutory limitation period. In some cases, spouses who are parties to subsequent marriages have attempted to assert the “relation back” doctrine to persuade courts to reinstate/reinforce alimony or maintenance payments from their previous marriage(s).

However, most states are reluctant to apply this doctrine to annul a court order, particularly when the rights of third parties may be affected. Courts in those states have held that when a second marriage has taken place prior to the annulment of a previous marriage, the decree annulling the prior marriage will not relate back to the time of the marriage so as to validate a second marriage contracted before the annulment decree. In those states that do not apply the “relation back” doctrine to annulment decrees, a voidable marriage permanently closes one’s right to receive alimony or maintenance from a former spouse.