Historical writers always need to know marriage laws for their particular setting. Well, maybe not always, but it comes up a lot. ;-) And they vary a lot from state to state, even county to county. Thankfully, in this digital age, many states have their archives online (woo hoo!), which makes it possible, if not simple, for us writerly folks to figure out what we need to know.
A couple years ago I was researching a book that I've yet to write--it was a sequel to a book I've never sold--and part of it hinged on Maryland marriage laws in the 1920s. I found the Maryland archives online, and a friend's lawyer husband thought it would be great fun to find the correct document for me (truly awesome friend, LOL). He pointed me to the exact place I needed, and voila! I discovered that in the 1920s, you were supposed to get a marriage license, but there was no waiting period. And what's more, if you did not get a license but were married by a minister, the marriage was legal, but there was a fine involved. If, on the other hand, you had license but no minister, the marriage wasn't considered legal. How interesting is that?
Another common misconception that pops up far too often in fiction, however, is the annulment. Or at least the threat of an annulment. I can't tell you how many times I've read books about marriages of convenience (read: unconsummated) where this is brought up. Because, obviously, if a marriage isn't consummated, it isn't a real marriage, and it can be wiped off the books, right? I always thought so. Until this same friend-married-to-a-lawyer pointed out that, nope, this is just something writers get wrong a lot.
Huh. Who knew? So what, then, are the laws about annulment?
Well, for starters, a bit of clarification on what it even is. While a divorce says a legal marriage has ended, annulment certifies that the marriage wasn't legal to begin with and, for all intents and purposes, didn't ever exist. It wipes it away entirely. Now, there are occasions where folks like the Catholic church will annul a marriage if, say, it took place outside the Church, wasn't performed by a priest, one of the couple wasn't Catholic, etc. (Though oddly, any children conceived in such a nullified union are still considered legitimate. Wrap you mind around that one...)
But in general, there are only a few very specific occasions when an annulment would be granted.
1. One of the people was already married.
2. One of them was underage, without court or parental approval--though this must be brought to the attention of the court within 60 days, or it's no longer a valid cause.
3. One of them was under the influence of a drug or alcohol and unaware of what they were doing--again, you only have 60 days to claim this one.
4. Mentally incompetant
5. One of them was threatened or forced into the marriage
6. One of them agreed to be married based on fraudulent claims or actions of the other. (I'm a millionaire, baby!)
7. Physically and incurably impotent--unless the other spouse knew about it beforehand. (See, even this is very, very specific.)
8. Marriage was prohibited by law because of something like age, race, blood relationship, proxy marriage, etc. Varies state to state.
So you see, there are causes...but not the one we usually read about. Interesting, eh?
Now off I go to force a couple to the alter, LOL. And no annulment talk here!