Frequently Asked Questions
 

The Tribunal Process

-back to top


 

What is marriage?

The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman for the giving and receiving of love and the procreation and education of children.

 

-back to top 


 

Is marriage a sacrament?

Yes, if both parties are baptized, a valid marriage is at the same time the Sacrament of Matrimony.

 

-back to top 


 

Can persons of other religious denominations also receive the Sacrament of Matrimony?

Yes, any two people who are validly baptized give the Sacrament of Matrimony to each other through their exchange of consent.

 

-back to top 


What about a marriage involving one or both of the parties who are not baptized?

Although such a marriage is not considered sacramental, it is presumed to be a natural, valid bond by the
Catholic Church.

 

-back to top


 

 

How can the Church declare a presumably valid marriage null and void?

The Church defines marriage as a covenant by which
a man and woman enter into a communion of life and
love with each other.  Marriage, by its nature, is ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.

It takes more than a ritual, the passing of years
or the producing of children to make a marriage valid.
This covenant must be entered into responsibly and freely and with the intention that it be permanent. If a party marries for the wrong reasons, if the will is impaired or if any of
the essential elements of marriage are compromised or left out, the marriage is invalid.  Or if one or both parties are unable to live out the marriage vows because of serious
and debilitating immaturity or because of any other psychological reason that was present from the beginning, the marriage is invalid.

 

-back to top 


 

Is the Catholic Church compromising its traditional stand on the sacredness and permanence of marriage by granting so many Declarations of Nullity?

By no means! The indissolubility of the Sacrament of Marriage remains a central Catholic teaching.  But, while carefully protecting Jesus' teaching of the sacredness of marriage, the Church also is obliged to provide justice for anyone whose marriage has failed, when it can be shown with moral certainty that the marriage lacked, from its onset, some essential element for a true sacramental bond.  Pope Paul VI stated that delayed justice is injustice and streamlined the annulment process.

 

-back to top 


 

What is the Tribunal?

The Matrimonial Tribunal is part of the judicial structure of the Catholic Church.  The day-to-day work of the Tribunal is supervised by the Judicial Vicar who is appointed by the Bishop. He must be a priest who is educated in the law of the Church.  Other officials of the Tribunal are the Judges, Defenders of the Bond, Auditors, Advocates and Ecclesiastical (Church) Notaries.

 

-back to top 


 

What is the purpose of the Tribunal?

The Church, as a visible society, has a right and a need to know and declare who among her members are married and to whom.  Marriage is a public event, a religious contract over and above a civil one.  Consequently, many believers feel the need for an external, independent, religious judgment that their marriage was not valid.  The tribunal process can also be a very healing experience -- healing within one's self, with the Church, with the significant others in our lives and, above all, with the Lord.

Any person who believes that his or her marriage is not valid has the right to challenge its validity.

 

-back to top 


 

Can anyone obtain a Church Declaration of Nullity?

No. Each case is decided on its own merit.  There must be grounds for nullity recognized in Church law.  These grounds must be proven to the satisfaction of the judge who is directed by the requirements of the law regarding what constitutes proof.   If after examining the gathered evidence the judge believes that he has obtained moral certitude, he may declare the marriage null and void from its inception.

 

-back to top 


 

Who may petition for a Declaration of Nullity?

Usually it is a Catholic party or another who wishes to marry a Catholic who would petition the Church for an investigation into the possible nullity of a prior marriage.

 

-back to top 


 

When can I petition the Tribunal?

The Tribunal can be petitioned at any time following the civil divorce.

 

-back to top 


 

Can I petition to any Tribunal?

Only the Tribunal which has jurisdiction can accept and process a petition for nullity.  Jurisdiction is determined by the place where the marriage occurred or by the residence of the former spouse (respondent).  The diocese where the applicant (petitioner) resides can obtain jurisdiction with the written or tacit permission of the respondent and of the Tribunal where the respondent resides.  If the whereabouts of the respondent is unknown and cannot be obtained, the Tribunal where the marriage occurred or where the petitioner resides has jurisdiction.

 

-back to top 


 

How do I go about making such a petition?

The petitioner would normally make an appointment to see the local Catholic parish priest or deacon.  He will provide the initial Petition form and assist in its being properly completed.  Many parishes also have specially trained Lay Advocates who assist in this work.

 

-back to top 


 

Do I need to present any additional documentation to the Tribunal other than the petition?

Yes. A copy of the civil marriage record and civil judgment of divorce must accompany a petition.  In addition, recent baptismal certificates for both the Catholic petitioner and/or respondent should be included (if applicable and obtainable).  The unexplained absence of these documents will prevent the opening of the case.

 

-back to top 


 

Does my former spouse have to be contacted?

Yes, the respondent has a right according to Church law to be informed of the petition and given an opportunity to testify on his or her own behalf.  The respondent also has a right to know of the alleged grounds for nullity.

 

-back to top 


 

What if my former spouse does not cooperate in the process?

It depends on the nature of the case in question.  The respondent's testimony is very important for a balanced view of the marriage.  Usually, if the testimony of the witnesses is quality testimony, the case can be concluded successfully without the respondent's testimony.  However, every reasonable effort is made to be sure that the respondent is given a chance to present his or her perspective of why the marriage failed.

 

-back to top 


 

Are witnesses necessary?

Absolutely!  The Tribunal will ask both parties of the former marriage to provide names and addresses of people who are available to assist the Tribunal in gaining a better understanding of the problems that occurred in the marriage from its inception.

Witnesses should be chosen on the basis of their ability to be objective, on their knowledge of the facts and on their knowledge of one or both parties.  These could include parents, family members, friends or counselors. Before their names are submitted to the Tribunal, they must agree to your request to cooperate in the Tribunal process.

 

-back to top 


 

How do the witnesses provide testimony?

Once the witnesses have given their consent to cooperate in the process and once the case is accepted, the Tribunal will mail them the material to guide them in writing their reflections and insights concerning the failure of the marriage.  If absolutely necessary, the witnesses will be invited to come to the Tribunal Office to give personal testimony.

 

-back to top 


 

What about professional witnesses?

Sometimes medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, professional counselors, priests, ministers, etc. have been consulted before or during a marriage in order to assist a person or a couple.  If so, you may be asked to sign a form which releases these professional witnesses from confidentiality. These witnesses are often very valuable in the study of the marriage in question.

 

-back to top 


 

What is the next step?

When your testimony and that of the witnesses and of the respondent have been gathered, an evaluation of the gathered material is made by the officials of the Tribunal.  It is at this time that a determination is made whether there is sufficient information to conclude the case.

If the case is concluded, you and your former spouse have the right to read the case, except for testimony which was specifically designated by a witness to be absolutely confidential.  An appointment must be made to review the case.  This must be done in the Tribunal office.  No material from the case may be removed or copied!

 

-back to top 


 

When is a decision made?

Once the case has been concluded, the Tribunal officials offer their reflections.  A decision is then rendered by the assigned judge in the case.  When the decision is rendered, you are notified in writing, through your Advocate.

If either party or the Defender of the Bond is not in agreement with the decision, the law provides for an "appeal."  The request for an appeal must be made in writing to the Tribunal Office within fifteen (15) working days from the date of the sentence notification letter.

 

-back to top 


 

What happens after a Declaration of Nullity is granted and no appeal is made?

Church law requires that every affirmative decision be reviewed by a second panel of judges from the Ecclesiastical Court of Second Instance (Archdiocese of Miami) before anyone is allowed to enter into a subsequent marriage recognized by the Catholic Church.  In most cases, this panel reviews the process of the First Instance Tribunal (Diocese of Palm Beach) to verify that the proper procedure and law were followed and the decision was correctly rendered. After the review, notification is given to the parties which indicates that two ecclesiastical Courts have rendered affirmative decisions.  This document is provided when the two courts have completed their work.

 

-back to top 


 

If an annulment is granted, does that mean both parties can remarry?

In most cases yes.  However, in some cases there may be conditions which either or both parties must fulfill before a Catholic Church marriage can take place.  The Church wants to be reasonably certain that the same factors which caused the invalidity of the previous marriage are no longer present.

In some cases, the Tribunal might require professional counseling or an evaluation by a priest or counselor to verify that both parties have the proper intentions and are capable of assuming the obligations and responsibilities of a new marriage.

 

-back to top 


 

Does a Declaration of Nullity have any civil effects?

NO!  The tribunal does not deny an historical fact.  All of the civil effects of the divorce should have been settled in the civil courts; therefore, the Church Declaration of Nullity has no effect on child support, property rights, alimony, etc.

 

-back to top 


 

Does a Declaration of Nullity affect the legitimacy of children?

NO!  The Church considers the children to be a gift from God. Therefore, the law of the Church states that children born of a marriage that is later declared to be invalid are legitimate. Children cannot lose their legitimacy!

 

-back to top 


 

Is there a fee for Tribunal services?

While the Marriage Tribunal is subsidized by the contributions made to the Annual Bishop's Appeal, persons submitting a case are asked to offer a donation of $400.00 to help defray the expense.  Petitioners are asked, if at all possible, to offer a deposit of $200.00 to cover initial expenses, and to pay the balance when the case is completed.  If anyone needs a reduction or a total waiver, the Tribunal will readily honor this request.  Under no circumstances will a Declaration of Nullity be denied or delayed because an individual cannot meet the expenses incurred by the Tribunal.

 

-back to top 


 

How long does it take to complete a marriage case?

The investigation process itself is not long or complicated.  However, the great number of cases that are always before the Tribunal means that it takes an average of ten months to one year (or longer) to process a case to completion.

 

-back to top 


 

Is a Declaration of Nullity always granted?

No.  If the judge believes that the grounds have not been proven with moral certitude, a negative decision is given. This means that the validity of the marriage must be upheld.

 

-back to top 


 

Are there some cases which are never able to be completed?

Yes.  Sometimes the witnesses will not cooperate or sometimes they are not knowledgeable enough to be of any real help to the case.  If this cannot be rectified, a "Decree of Abandonment" is given.

 

-back to top 


 

What does the petitioner do if the Tribunal is not able to complete a case due to lack of evidence?

The Tribunal can only make a human judgment.  To do so, it depends on certain data in the form of documents and testimony.  If such data is not available, no judgment can be made and the marriage is to be presumed valid. However, the Tribunal is aware that some cases may be justified even though not proven.  This is when the petitioner should seek counsel regarding a "coming to terms" with his or her own conscience.

 

-back to top 


 

Is a divorced person excommunicated from the Church?

NO!  A Catholic is not excommunicated when he or she is divorced. A divorced person is fully and completely a member of the Church.

 

-back to top 


 

Can a divorced person receive communion?

Yes. There is nothing in itself that prevents a divorced Catholic from receiving the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance.  It is only a remarriage outside the Church that would affect receiving the Eucharist.

 

-back to top