Annulment Process: What Does “Lack of Form” Mean?


 There is a legal term used in the annulment process that has been getting a lot of attention recently, and that is the term lack of form. The common misconception about the ramifications of this term for someone seeking a decree of nullity is this: if you use or are instructed to use “lack of form” as grounds to argue you didn’t have a valid marriage, you will almost be guaranteed a decree of nullity from a tribunal, and in some cases, it will dictate you only need to go through the short form of the process and will have your decree in a matter of weeks. This is a misconception. If you have been told either of these things, I urge you to take a little time before jumping to conclusions about your own former marriage and what the outcome of the annulment process will be for you.


To help explain my point, I’d like to refer to an article I wrote a few years back, in which I explained the teaching of Canon Law on what constitutes a sacrament. It states that two things MUST be present for a sacrament to be a sacrament; matter and form. Matter refers to the person or thing involved and form refers to the rubrics, or the words and actions of the sacrament.


For example, you can have a priest pray the Epiklises or words of consecration (form) over an Oreo cookie (matter) but you will not get the Eucharist.


Another example would be in the sacrament of baptism, in which you cannot use Coca-Cola, lemonade, or any other liquid besides water (matter); it must be water that is poured over the head and the words (form), “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” spoken during the pouring. Anything different would not constitute a sacrament. It seems simple, but with a marriage, it’s not always that clear cut.


Now that we’ve defined what constitutes a sacrament, let’s look at that in terms of the sacrament of marriage, and the “lack of form.” 


Most Catholics believe you must be married in a physical parish church as part of validating a marriage and that anything different would invalidate the marriage.


But did you know that a couple may ask for permission to hold the ceremony at the beach and if granted permission, is perfectly acceptable? The officiating priest would file a petition with the bishop’s office requesting permission for a “lack of form” and if it is granted, the wedding may be held in a location that is not a church. So even though the couple’s wedding has a “lack of form” they still likely have a valid marriage, because they presented themselves freely and with the intention to create a permanent and exclusive union with the intention to procreate. So “lack of form” has no bearing in this instance on the validity of the marriage bond. This is why it is so important to properly file a petition for the annulment process after divorce and allow the tribunal their due process in examining your case; so you know without a stitch of a doubt that you are either free to marry, or bound to your ex-spouse.


Automatic deal breakers for having a valid marriage are if one or both spouses get married without intending to create a permanent and exclusive union that is open to life. That is an example of when the matter is lacking. The rubrics of the sacrament dictate how vows must be pronounced, where the wedding takes place, the prayers the priest will pray, etc. It would be quite difficult for the average person, themselves, to determine the validity of a marriage, based upon a single deviation of form. That’s why the annulment process is there to help, if it’s approached with the right frame of mind.


What could be the wrong frame of mind? Well, approaching the annulment process as a “condition” for getting re-married. The best advice to take is don’t get involved in another relationship until you have a decree of nullity (annulment) in your hand. Otherwise, two things will happen:


  1. The annulment process will become an ultimatum you give the Church; “Give me an annulment or I’ll have to get re-married elsewhere.” You don’t want to be in this position, believe me.
  2. If this becomes your pathway to another marriage, you will completely miss out on the healing nature of the process. There is a reason why so many people refer to it as the 8th Sacrament. It’s a time to face the truth, grieve the marriage, lay the memories to rest, experience personal growth, and finally, move forward with peace. Missing out on that aspect alone would be a travesty, in my humble opinion.


My best advice to you is to approach the annulment process with a spirit of openness and a desire to learn and heal.


Feel free to send your comments and questions to



  1. Cathy-1003876 September 24, 2016 Reply

    I found the annulment process frustrating and not healing in any way. I found out how my ex felt – and never shared with me. I still wish I understood what really happened between us. He couldn’t be honest with himself and I felt ” gas lighted”. It brought no peace.

  2. Kimberly W. July 6, 2015 Reply

    I work in our local marriage tribunal and you have definitely hit the nail on the head, especially with the two things that will happen! I hear #1 all the time. Sadly #2 generally does not want to be dealt with rather it just wants to be buried.

    • Nikhol V. July 20, 2015 Reply

      Kimberly, I’m currently in the beginning of this process and feel lost. I’ve spoken to 2 priest who’ve told me 2 different things. The first one says my process will be hopefully fast. The other priest says my process will take longer than what the other priest has told me. I haven’t spoken to or seen my ex in 13 years. We have a son together, but he hasn’t seen or paid for his son in 12 years. I don’t know where he is or where to contact him. I wasn’t catholic at the time, so priest #2 says because I wasn’t catholic at the time and I can’t prove my ex was catholic at the time, the church recognizes it as a marriage and the process will take longer. A deacon, who doesn’t know my situation, says it’s rare for the church to annual marriages so don’t get my hopes up. I want to marry my fiancé next year in the church and I’m so worried about how this process works because I can’t seem to get anyone to give me any straight answers. What is your advice on how to hurry this process along and get the ok from the church? I should mention that I’ve been over my ex from the beginning of divorce, I’ve had plenty of time to grieve, and move forward like #2 states. Should I put that in writing and turn it in with my lack of form?

      • Nikhol V. July 20, 2015 Reply

        I should also mention we were married in any church. We were married by a JP. Also I had 1 friend go through the process and it took him a month and a half for the archdiocese to give him the ok. While another friend has taken over a year and they are still waiting to hear from the archdiocese.

  3. Jennifer-1108461 May 16, 2015 Reply

    My question regarding this article is that it states annulmant is the 8th sacrament in which it allows the party grieveing time for their marriage… An annulment means the marriage was not valid… that it did not take place. I believe this article is misleading. What I gathered from the article is that we, as Catholics should view an annulment as a Catholic divorce… The Church’s views on it used to be very clear and I am beginning to wonder when and where that changed.

  4. Richard-711426 October 8, 2013 Reply

    I am divorced and was mistaken getting married in the first place. Why you might ask? Marriage was never really in my heart. I didn’t have the desire much like someone who never considers the priesthood or religious life. I knew what I wanted and allowed family and others to influence me. It’s been 25 years I still have no desire, not that I haven’t prayerfully considered the issue, I still feel the same. Secondly, I never wanted children although I have three grown sons, a hurtful fact I will never divulge to them. It’s not their fault! I accept that I lack paternal instincts. The price I pay is loneliness and failed relationships because I’m very honest about about my feelings regarding ever marrying again. With regard to the annulment process even if I wanted to get married I find it lacking. How can one erase the fact that a marriage took place. I know I was married, I’ll always know that. God knows I was married and He’ll always know that! My children are a result of me being married and a reminder of that union. To me an annulment would be tantamount to bastardizing them. Doesn’t the church think I’ve done enough without adding insult to injury? If I want to get married I don’t need another mans permission! PERIOD! This is where I part ways with the Church! I don’t anticipate getting married anyway, and no one is asking. If God chooses to bless me with a mate and marry her He’ll make it happen. I pray for His will and wait on Him!

  5. John-947764 May 15, 2013 Reply


  6. Dave-915458 May 4, 2013 Reply

    I think this article is misleading. From the Title, it seems like the article proposes to explain what “Lack of Form” is. However, we are only provided with one example of what is NOT “Lack of Form”. No examples have been provided of what IS “Lack of Form”. (Though there is one example of what IS “Lack of Matter”.

    • Victoria-735310 August 17, 2013 Reply

      Isn’t the example of being married on the beach a lack of form? It sounds like doing anything other than being married at the alter in a Catholic Church may be lack of form.

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