By Jenna Marie Cooper
Q: My cousin told me I could get an annulment for $1,000. Is that still true? (Washington, D.C.)
A: It’s important to keep in mind that Catholic tribunals exist to conduct an impartial investigation as to whether a marriage that initially appeared valid was indeed valid and binding in fact. In other words, the goal of a marriage-nullity process is simply to uncover the truth so as to determine the status of the parties in the Church and whether or not they are free to marry. This is why the preferred term is declaration of nullity rather than annulment because the word annulment implies that the Church is actively making a union null, whereas the term declaration of nullity makes it clear that an objective fact is simply brought to light.
Thus, the possibility of a particular marriage being declared null is never something that can be promised or expected. The investigation is a very thorough one which includes sworn testimony under oath before God from the parties and witnesses, reviews by a court psychologist and a defender of the bond, and then, a decision by canon lawyer judges which is a lengthy written document with facts of the case, canon law, and the canonical argument finding invalidity or not. After that, one aggrieved by the decision may appeal it to another tribunal which conducts another investigation and reaches a decision. The tribunal stands first and foremost to uphold the dignity and sanctity of marriage since all marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise. The Church’s canon law has several rules in place to ensure that the process won’t be swayed in one direction or the other for monetary reasons. For example, canon 1456 of the Code of Canon Law states: “The judge and all officials of the tribunal are prohibited from accepting any gifts on the occasion of their acting in a trial.” Similarly, can 1488 §1 warns that Advocates in a marriage-nullity process (who have a role analogous to a personal attorney for the parties involved) can face serious consequences -- including being forbidden from practicing in a particular tribunal -- if they attempt “to resolve the litigation by bribery or to make an agreement for an excessive profit.”
It is, in principle, legitimate for tribunals to charge a fee for taking your case. Although it is against canon law to charge fees for sacraments per se, a marriage nullity trial is an administrative process that, despite investigating amarriage, is not a sacrament itself.
Like any administrative process, there are real costs involved. For one thing, there is the overhead involved in running any office for things like supplies, rent, postal costs and utility bills. Additionally, although many tribunals make use of volunteers to help priests submit petitions to the tribunal, the Church is obligated to pay clergy and laypeople who staff tribunals a living wage, but this is not the higher wage which people would earn in secular employment. Pope Francis specifically requested that tribunals not charge a fee in dioceses which could afford to cover the costs involved in a declaration of nullity; that decision is left to each bishop.
In the United States, each tribunal has a different policy regarding whether or how much the petitioner (i.e. the person who is actively seeking the declaration of nullity) pays as a fee. Over the years, I have heard of some tribunals charging as much as $1,000 for the whole process; I’ve heard of others that charged less than half of this; and others that charge a nominal filing fee, mainly to ensure that petitioners are willing to take the process seriously. Other tribunals might not charge a fee for the process itself, but might ask the petitioner to cover particular expenses, such as the stipend for a psychologist the tribunal may ask to weigh in on the case.
In many American tribunals, there is no charge at all; the cost of the process is borne entirely by the diocese through sources like the annual diocesan appeal.
The Church’s ministry of justice is meant to be open to every member of the faithful, regardless of his or her personal financial circumstances; so, even in tribunals that do charge fees for trying marriage-nullity cases, there is always some provision to ensure that the process is accessible for those who cannot afford to pay. Therefore, nobody should be deterred from approaching their diocesan tribunal due solely to a lack of funds.
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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].