Prior to the introduction of divorce in Irish law, a nullity decree was one of the few ways of ending a marriage.  This article will explain what is meant by a decree of nullity, the conditions upon which such a decree is granted and the consequences of such a decree.

What is a Decree of Nullity?

A decree of nullity is a declaration that a marriage never existed.  The marriage is legally “erased”, unlike a divorce situation, whereby the marriage certainly existed but is then legally terminated.

At this juncture, it is important to point out the difference between a church annulment and a decree of nullity. A church annulment does not legally declare a marriage to be null and void. However, it allows either party to remarry in the eyes of the church.

When is a Decree of Nullity Granted?

There are two types of marriages which may be annulled: void marriages and voidable marriages.

A void marriage is one which is deemed to have never legally existed at all.  In theory, where a marriage is void, there is no legal requirement to seek a decree of nullity. However, such a decree should be sought for clarity.

There are three grounds upon which a marriage may be declared void:

1. Non-observance of Formalities

An example of a formality of marriage is the legal requirement to give at least three months’ notice in writing to the Registrar of marriages of an intention to marry.

2. Lack of Capacity

A marriage may be declared void if either or both parties were incapable of entering into a valid marriage, for example, if either or both parties were already validly married to somebody else.

3. Lack of consent

This is by far the most common ground upon which a nullity decree is sought.  For example, a party may argue that, at the time of marriage, he or she was under duress or undue influence or either party was suffering from a psychiatric illness preventing him or her from fully and freely consenting to the marriage.

Unlike a void marriage which technically does not require a decree of nullity, a voidable marriage is one which remains valid until a decree of nullity is granted by a Court.

A decree of nullity may be granted in respect of a voidable marriage if either party was unable to consummate the marriage or if either party was unable to enter and sustain a normal marital relationship.

Effects of a Decree of Nullity

Once a decree of nullity is granted, the marriage is declared to have never existed.  Unlike a divorce situation, the court does not make orders as to maintenance and there is no provision for ancillary relief.

Therefore, while there has undoubtedly been a marked reduction in the number of nullity decrees sought since the introduction of divorce in Ireland, nullity remains to be a preferable option for those who believe that their marriage never validly existed.