An annulment, properly called a declaration of nullity, is a discovery that at the time of the wedding, some essential feature was not present, the marriage was incomplete, and the Church, after thorough investigation, declares that a valid marriage did not exist.
The declaration of nullity does not deny that an interpersonal relationship existed, nor does it imply that the marriage was entered into with ill will or through moral fault.
A declaration of nullity is not some sort of “Catholic divorce” by which the Church allows the marriage bond to be broken. Unlike a civil divorce, a declaration of nullity does not claim to break the marriage bond, but it is rather a statement that the marriage, as it is understood by the Church, was never valid in the first place.
In a declaration of nullity process, the tribunal judges conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the marriage, especially prior to and at the time the couple exchanged their vows. The judges evaluate and examine the marriage for the necessary elements of a valid union: permanence, fidelity, true companionship and love of the spouses, and openness to bearing and educating children. The tribunal seeks to determine if there was anything that prevented those elements from being present from the beginning or if one or both spouses were unable to enter into a valid union due to physical, psychological or circumstantial causes.
The entire process leading to a declaration of nullity is regulated by canon law and other ecclesiastical norms, which are universal and govern tribunals in every diocese throughout the world. Declarations of nullity have no civil effects in the United States and do not render any children born of the relationship illegitimate.
Furthermore, a declaration of nullity does not pronounce one party guilty and the other innocent; it does not seek to assign blame to one of the parties.