Divorce is one of those life events which can never be prepared for. Ending the marriage and the union you had hoped would last the rest of your life is usually a traumatic experience for all concerned. The time of separation and divorce is a time of upheaval and at all levels it can result in strained friendships and feeling of alienation and guilt.
The Church cares…
The Church acknowledges the reality of separation and divorce. It is aware of the stresses in our modern world associated with end of a marriage. Added to the pain of the legal and relational process are the questions that divorced Catholics may have about their status within the Church. They may wonder if and when they are required to seek a Church Declaration of Nullity. Whilst upholding the permanence of sacramental marriage, the Church does reach out in support of those whose marriages have broken down. These aspects of the Church are especially evident in the sensitive work of the Tribunals of the Catholic Church.
Any divorced person has the right to ask for an investigation of a previous marriage by the Tribunal of the Church. The main work of our Tribunal is to assist with the pastoral care of the divorced person who has remarried or is intending another marriage in the Catholic Church. It may also assist a divorced Catholic who is seeking clarification of his/her position for peace of conscience or for reassurance in developing relationships in the future. Whatever the person’s life circumstances, the marriage tribunal process is a journey of discovery. Those who embark on it are accompanied by compassionate staff and volunteers who are committed to confidentiality.
“Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven” Pope Francis
What is a Declaration of Nullity (Decree of Nullity)?
A Declaration of Nullity is not a Catholic word for divorce. A Decree of Nullity is a declaration by the Church that a particular marriage was null and void from the beginning. It does not deny that there had ever been any kind of bond between the couple or erase the relationship that existed. Nor does it make any comment on any moral fault in the parties. The Church recognises that there was a real civil marriage, a real relationship and the children are and always will be legitimate even if a Declaration of Nullity is granted. A declaration points to the fact that some of the elements of the essential substance of marriage were missing and that their union was flawed.
Does an annulment make the children illegitimate?
No. Church law states that the children of an annulled marriage are considered legitimate. An annulment affects only the marital status of the parties themselves and then only according to Church law.
How to begin the process?
The Tribunal will only accept a case if the relationship is proven to be irretrievably broken down, i.e. in the case of New Zealand, cases are accepted only after a civil divorce and settlement are finalised. The process begins when an applicant (known as the Petitioner) completes a ‘Preliminary Submission Form’ and a ‘Fact Sheet’ and sends it to the Tribunal. The form is available from the Tribunal upon request. The form asks for information about the background of each party and for details of the courtship and married life. Following this a preliminary assessment is made, after which the Petitioner is advised whether the case is considered worth further investigation. If the case is accepted for hearing, there will be a further formal interview with the Petitioner. Please note that continuation of the process does not guarantee a decision of nullity.
Is the former spouse contacted?
It is a requirement of canon law that the other spouse (known as the Respondent) be informed of the investigation and given the opportunity to participate in the investigation in the same manner as the applicant.
The Tribunal should be provided with the Respondent’s current address. It is not necessary for the Petitioner to contact the Respondent, the Tribunal can do this.
The testimonies of the Petitioner and the Respondent will be obtained separately. The Tribunal finds that in most cases, the Respondents are willing to testify, however, if a Respondent once contacted, declines to participate, the case can still proceed.
What about witnesses?
Both the Petitioner and the Respondent may nominate witnesses. Key witnesses are those who knew the couple before the wedding and at the time they got married. The person who names the witnesses is responsible for getting them to agree to give evidence, but the Tribunal will contact them with arrangement for the evidence to be given.
Is there a need to produce any documents?
Yes. The Petitioner will be asked to supply the Tribunal with Marriage and Divorce Certificates and also Records of Baptisms (where applicable).
What about confidentiality?
All Declaration of Nullity evidence is confidential. The Tribunal must also observe relevant reporting and privacy laws of New Zealand. The parties to the marriage have the opportunity to know the decision and the basis on which it was made.
How long does all this take?
Due to the number of applications and the varying factors involved in different cases, no time can be specified but the average time for an outcome is between twelve and eighteen months. Many cases are completed within a year.
Please do not make arrangements for a new marriage in any parish until the annulment procedure is finalised. Setting a date for a wedding before the final decision is known places the Petitioner and their proposed partner, not to mention the Tribunal staff, under unreasonable and unnecessary pressure.
What are the fees for annulment?
The applications for Declaration of Nullity are free of charge.
Who to contact?
As every relationship is unique the above explanation may still leave you with many unanswered questions. The Tribunal Office for the Wellington and Palmerston North dioceses is in located in Wellington (other dioceses have their own Tribunal offices which can be found on their websites). Please contact us at the Tribunal office and we will guide you through the process and answer your questions:
Louise Kelleher or Teena George
Catholic Centre, 22-30 Hill Street, PO Box 1937, Wellington 6140
Tel 04 496 1727
You may like to read our booklet on the Declaration of Nullity process.