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What’s the difference between divorce, annulment and non-marriage?

While many people think that divorce, annulment and non-marriage are essentially the same, but they are distinct in several important ways. They all concern the ending of a marriage.  Legally, however, they have different meanings and different consequences for the couple.

The system for divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership in England and Wales is slightly different to the one in Northern Ireland, and quite different to the Scottish system.


Divorce is the ending of a legal marriage. In England and Wales, you can get a divorce if you have been married for at least a year and the relationship has irretrievably broken down. 

Once divorced, both parties are single and able to remarry.


Annulment is a way of ending a marriage, like divorce.

Unlike divorce, you can get a marriage annulled at any time after the wedding (in a divorce, you have to wait at least a year).

Annulment is the legal cancellation of an illegal or defective marriage. There are two types of annulment; these are known as 'void' and 'voidable' marriages.

Void marriages include when:

  • One of the couple was already married or in a civil partnership.
  • Either / both of the couple were under age 16
  • The couple is closely related.

Marriages annulled for the following reasons are known as voidable marriages.

  • Being mentally ill or incapacitated when the marriage happened and not being able to consent properly.
  • Being forced, or unable to, consent to the marriage.
  • The marriage was not consummated - you have not had sex with the person you married since the wedding (does not apply for same sex couples)
  • The woman was pregnant by another man when the marriage happened.
  • Having a sexually transmitted disease when the marriage happened.

Non-Marriage (non-existent marriage)

A non-marriage has no legal status, because it has little resemblance to a marriage and no legal consequences and is not recognised in the eyes of English law.  It is therefore not possible to apply for a divorce or apply for any financial orders which apply to recognised marriages.

The term is often used to describe marriages specific to religions, such as the nikah in Islam. While the ceremony and marriage may be viewed as legal and valid by participants and internal to the religion, it may not recognised by the law as such, unless the parties also take part in a properly licensed civil wedding ceremony.

If you have reason to believe that your marriage may not be valid, you may want to consult a solicitor specialising in family law. They should be able to advise you as to whether your marriage is valid and what actions you may want to take if it is not.

This article was written by Jonathan Miller, Associate Solicitor at Docklands Solicitors

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances, and is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. If specific advice is required in connection with any of the matters covered in this article, please speak to Docklands Solicitors directly.

Published on 10th December 2018

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