The annulment process is guided by strict procedural norms. These norms help to guide the search for the truth when a question is raised about a marriage’s validity. They also help to protect the rights of all parties involved, and to ensure that each marriage case before the Tribunal is handled fairly and objectively.
The following pages out line the various steps in a marriage trial within the Metropolitan Tribunal of Newark. It is just a brief sketch of the process that we follow.
A NOTE ABOUT MARRIAGE CASES AND TESTIMONY
A Tribunal is not seeking to assign blame for the failure of a marriage. Instead, the judges are looking principally at how the marriage began – at the time of the wedding – and not how it ended. In the annulment process, the judges gather the facts for the marriage, focusing their attention at the marriage’s beginning. To do this, the judges will ask questions of Petitioners, Respondents and Witnesses, either by personal interviews or through written questionnaires. In all cases, the judges make decisions based on the facts that are presented to them.
Some of these facts may seem embarrassing. At times it may be necessary to tell of events that are painful to recall or that seem to indicate blame or fault. And, even though the judges are looking principally at how the marriage began, later events may also be relevant and helpful to the judges.
In giving testimony, we ask that parties and witnesses be completely honest and open, allowing the judges to search for the truth of the matter, and not to be concerned about moral or ethical judgements.
Although the information we gather is confidential, this confidentiality is not absolute. For example, the Petitioner and the Respondent in a case both have the right to know what is being said about them and the right to contradict claims with which they disagree. We also make sure that any information we learn about the abuse of minors is shared with civil officials.
Meeting with a Parish Official
In order to start this process, a person who is seeking an annulment, the Petitioner, usually contacts their local parish and meets with the pastor or his representative. The pastor or his representative will help the person to determine if the annulment case needs to be processed in the way that is described here, or if a Catholic was married without observing the required canonical form (exchanging consent before a priest or a deacon) and this was done without seeking a dispensation from canonical form from the bishop, then a simpler process is available.
If it is determined that the formal annulment procedure is required, the person will receive the Initial Questionnaire, called the Petition, to complete.
Preparing the Initial Questionnaire
- The first step is to fill out the preliminary forms and answer questions about the marriage under review. The spouse who asks the Tribunal to investigate the marriage is called the Petitioner, since he or she is the one who “petitions” the Tribunal to begin the case. The other spouse is called the Respondent, since he or she “responds” to the Petitioner’s initiative.
- The Petitioner must also gather the documents that must be submitted with their Petition. These must be original or certified documents and include the following:
- A Baptismal Certificate (if the Petitioner is Catholic) – issued within the 6 months
- The Marriage Certificate or License
- The Divorce Decree
- The Petitioner, reading through this, will begin to determine which ground or grounds can be used to question the validity of his or her failed marriage.
- When the Petition is completed, the Petitioner contacts the Tribunal (973) 497-4145 or email our Intake Staff Email) to schedule a meeting with a Case Assessor.
Meeting with a Case Assessor
Every person seeking an annulment from the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Newark must meet with a Case Assessor before submitting their case. This meeting can occur after the Petitioner has completed the Petition and assembled the required documents, or earlier if the Petitioner need help in completing the Petition.
Normally, the Petitioner will meet twice with a Case Assessor at a local Catholic parish.
The case Assessor will review the Petition and all of the required paperwork. The Case Assessor will also help the Petitioner suggest one or more ground (reason) for an annulment. Every case must have at least one recognized ground. Together with the Case Assessor, the Petitioner will write a one-page statement regarding each proposed ground, stating why the Petitioner believes the ground applies to his or her case.
A Case Assessor is a person specifically trained and commissioned by the Newark Tribunal to help a Petitioner prepare and submit the introductory documents of a marriage case.
An Advocate is a canon lawyer or other person skilled in marriage cases who offers advice after the petition is received and accepted and who can represent the interests of a Petitioner or Respondent before the Tribunal.
The Petitioner will also be required to submit two to five material witnesses who can help to prove the Petitioner’s suggested grounds. The best witnesses are persons who know both parties before and during the marriage: Witnesses may be co-workers, friends, neighbors, or family members. The Petitioner is expected to speak personally with each person named as a witness, to inform them that they will be contacted by the Tribunal and to ensure that each witness will respond quickly to the Tribunal’s questions. Children from the marriage under investigation are not normally permitted to be witnesses.
The Case Assessor has two other brief but important forms for the Petitioner to sign: the actual Petition to begin the case, and a Statement of Tribunal Policies. At this point the Petitioner also appoints an Advocate (if the case is accepted by the Tribunal) who will help the Petitioner through the remainder of the process.
Each annulment case requires the work of many individuals who have salaried positions in the Tribunal. The processing of each case involves other costs associated with the operation of an office (telephones, computers, electricity, mail, paper, etc.).
The Archdiocese of Newark helps to defray the costs associated with the processing of Marriage Cases, but Petitioners are also expected to help with these costs.
Every Petitioner must include a small filing fee with their petition and agree to pay the remaining balances as determined in their agreement.
A Tribunal must have jurisdiction in a case before it can accept it. This is to guarantee that both spouses as well as their witnesses have the opportunity to participate in the case if they wish to, and prevents “shopping around” among Tribunals. For a marriage case, a Tribunal has jurisdiction if:
- the marriage took place within the Tribunal’s territory, or
- the Respondent lives within the Tribunal’s territory, or
- the Petitioner lives within the Tribunal’s territory, or
- most of the proofs (witnesses and other testimony) are found within the Tribunal’s territory.*
The territory of the Archdiocese of Newark includes 4 counties: Essex, Bergen, Hudson & Union.
Accepting the Case
Once the jurisdiction of the Tribunal is established, the Tribunal reviews the Petitioner’s introductory statements to see if the case can be accepted. The judges may reject a Petition if no grounds are evident or are unsupported by the Petitioner’s statements. It is very important that the Petitioner, in consultation with his or her Case Assessor, suggest grounds that are supported by the facts of the case.
The Tribunal will write to the Petitioner if the case is accepted. At this point, the Petitioner will have already appointed an Advocate to answer questions the Petitioner may have and also to represent the interests of the Petitioner before the Tribunal.
Both the Petitioner and the Respondent will be informed who the three judges (or the single Judge) of their case will be, as well as the name of the Defender of the Bond. The Defender of the Bond has the role of pointing out for the judges the elements in the case which seem to support the validity of the marriage bond. The Defender of the Bond has an important role in evaluating the testimony and grounds in a case and ensuring that the teaching of Jesus and the Church on the permanence of marriage is respected.
Contacting the Respondent
After the Petition has been accepted by the Tribunal, the Respondent is contacted. This step is known as the “citation of the Respondent,” and is a crucial part of the process. The letter citing the Respondent is sent at the same time the Petitioner is notified that the case has been accepted.
The Respondent is notified that the Petitioner has submitted a Petition for a case, and a copy of the one-page Petition listing the suggested grounds and witnesses is sent to the Respondent. The Respondent is asked to appoint an Advocate. Lastly, the Respondent is asked to consider how actively he or she wants to participate in the case.
The Respondent cannot simply “stop” the case, but has several options regarding participation in the trial:
- The Respondent can choose to participate actively, suggest grounds and witnesses, and offer personal testimony. The Tribunal encourages the Respondent’s active participation because it allows the judges to hear from both parties of the marriage and come to a better understanding of the events and circumstances at the beginning of the union.
- The Respondent can choose a more passive role and simply request to be informed on the progress of the case.
- The Respondent can ask that the Tribunal not make further contact with him or her. Sometimes the Respondent simply ignores this contact from the Tribunal and is declared absent from the process, which will continue without the Respondent’s participation. Nevertheless, the Respondent always has the right to become more actively involved later, as the case progresses.
Determining the Grounds (The “Joinder of Issues”)
The Petitioner initially suggested possible grounds and witnesses on the one-page petition that was sent to the Tribunal along with the Initial Questionnaire. This petition was sent to the Tribunal along with the Initial Questionnaire. This petition was then sent to the Respondent, who was able to state that he or she is in agreement or not with the Petitioner’s proposed grounds. The Respondent is also given the opportunity to suggest entirely different grounds.
Once the judge(s) have heard the opinion of the Respondent, if he or she has decided to participate, the judge(s) will determine the grounds in a step known as the Joinder of Issues. In fact, the judge(s) may set grounds in a step known as the Joinder of Issues. In fact, the judge(s) may set grounds that neither the Petitioner nor the Respondent suggested. The judge(s) always set grounds based on the initial information they have received and in view of finding the best possible ground or grounds for the case at hand.
The Petitioner and Respondent are then informed of the grounds that will be used to judge the case. They can object at that time, or can ask at any time that the grounds be changed. However, it is always the judge(s) in the case who make the final decision on what grounds will be used, The input of the parties is important, but they do not actually choose the grounds.
Collecting the Proofs (Gathering the Evidence)
Once the grounds have been determined by the judge(s), the Petitioner and the Respondent will be able to offer testimony, either by completing additional questionnaires in writing (affidavits), or through a personal interview with a court official (deposition), The questions asked on the affidavit or during the deposition will be based on the grounds that have been assigned to the case. Witnesses will also be cited and will normally offer their written testimony in response to questions that have bee sent to them by regular mail. Sometimes witnesses are brought in to the Tribunal for a personal interview; occasionally they will be contacted by telephone for follow-up questions.
The longest delays in cases often occur because witnesses do not respond to their questionnaires in a timely fashion. It is the responsibility of the parties to ensure that their witnesses respond. If witnesses do not respond, the grounds cannot be proven because the statements of the Petitioner are not supported by other testimony. In this situation the case is either abandoned by the Petitioner or given a negative decision by the judges (meaning that an annulment is not granted and the marriage is not declared invalid).
Reviewing the Evidence
Once the witnesses, the Petitioner and the Respondent (if participating) have answered the Court’s questions, the testimony is reviewed by one of the judges. If the judge determines that enough evidence has been gathered to bring the case to a conclusion, both the Petitioner and the Respondent and their Advocates are invited to come to the Tribunal during normal business hours to review the evidence.
If either party lives outside the Archdiocese of Newark, this review may be done at another Tribunal near to them. No copies of the testimony may be made and no notes may be taken. The only purpose of this review is to correct false statements by submitting additional testimony and witnesses. In practice, the parties are usually provided with a summary of evidence that will be used by the judges in making their final decision.
The use of Expert Witnesses
In some cases, the Tribunal judges will consult an expert witness before reaching a decision in the case. This is typically done in cases in which the grounds require a psychological or psychiatric interpretation of the testimony in order to reach a decision.
Often, this input is based on a thorough review of the testimony already collected in a case. Sometimes, however, it may become necessary for one of these experts to personally meet with the Petitioner or the Respondent for psychological testing and questioning. When this type of personal interview by a psychological expert is necessary to bring a case to its conclusion, an additional fee is normally charged.
The input offered by the expert witness is considered a confidential communication between that professional and the judges. It is normally not made available to the parties, but may be reviewed by the Advocates.
Decision-making in the Case
Once the evidence-gathering stage of the trial is concluded, the decision-making stage begins. The presiding judge determines if the Advocates are to submit written briefs for the case. If so, the Advocates are given time to compose their legal briefs. The judge may also permit the Advocates to make “oral arguments” instead of writing a brief.
Next, the Defender of the Bond is given time to compose a written statement pointing out any reasons why the validity of the marriage ought to be upheld (that is, he or she may give reasons why the Declaration of Nullity should not be granted). This important document is required in all cases, and the Defender of the Bond has an important role in guaranteeing that the judges reach a just, balanced, and equitable decision.
The case is then placed on the judges’ docket. Since there are usually many cases waiting for the judges’ final decision, each case is reviewed in the order in which it was placed on the docket.
Three judges of the Tribunal will eventually discuss the case together, considering all the testimony and the comments of the Advocates and the Defender of the Bond. If the case is complicated, or the testimony is not clear, the judges may ask the Advocates to compose additional written briefs, or responses (“rejoinders”) to the first briefs.
Publication of the Sentence
When the judges have discussed the case and reached a decision based on the testimony, one of the three judges places that decision in writing in the “Definitive Sentence.” The decision of the judges is made known, or “published” to the Petitioner, the Respondent and their Advocates, and they are permitted to read the Sentence at the Tribunal office. If they are not living in the Archdiocese of Newark, they may read the judges’ decision in the office of a Tribunal near to them.
Appeal of the Sentence
If the Petitioner, the Respondent or the Defender of the Bond believe that the judge(s) have reached an incorrect decision, a formal appeal may be made to either the Tribunal of Newark or to the Roman Rota of the Holy See itself. The person who formally appeals the case is responsible for all fees associated with the appeal. During formal appeal, both parties will normally be expected to provide additional testimony.
If, at any time during this process, the Tribunal becomes aware of the abuse of a minor, it is our responsibility to see to it that a report is made to the appropriate civil officials. We will help the person making the claim report the abuse, or make the report on our own initiative.