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Roman Catholics

Roman Catholic Church in the state of hawaii

Diocese of Honolulu

Witness to Jesus

Diocesan Offices

Diocesan Offices

Marriage Nullity Petition Process

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Meaning of a Declaration of Nullity


People Involved

FAQs about the Respondent

The Process

What Takes So Long?

Processing Fee



For those who are divorced and may wish to remarry someday, the Church has a process to determine if a person is free to marry in the Church.  This process is conducted by the Diocesan Tribunal.

Many times, parties involved in this process have commented on the spiritual healing they have experienced as a result.  Often the parties say that the process brings closure on a sad chapter in their lives, and they are often able to learn from their past mistakes and make better lives for themselves.

The following information is meant to help those interested in further information about the process. It begins with a theological understanding of marriage, the laws of the Catholic Church regarding marriage, the rationale and grounds for a declaration of nullity, and the procedure and costs for petitioning in the Diocese of Honolulu.

Petitioners:  Click here to download the petition, preliminary investigation and advocate mandate and witness list. Please give the completed form and documents to your priest or deacon or lay advocate at your parish, who will submit the papers to us.

If you are a respondent in a cause being heard by the Tribunal of the Diocese of Honolulu, click here for a fillable form in which you can make your declarations.  You can type directly into this form, print it out, sign it, and mail to the Tribunal office.  You can also scan and email the form to us, although it must have your signature.  It includes a witness list.  If you prefer to fill the form out by hand instead, you can print out the form and then fill it in (please print). 

When a Marriage is Declared Invalid

A declaration of marital nullity is an authoritative statement issued by a Church Tribunal that a marriage is invalid.  Such a declaration does not dissolve a marriage, as if it was a type of divorce granted by the Church. It does not mean that the human relationship was void of meaning. Rather, a declaration of nullity is a ruling of the Church's court that some essential ingredient was lacking in a marriage from the time of consent.  A declaration of nullity has no civil consequences, and it does not say that no civil marriage existed. It does not render children illegitimate in the Church (canon 1137). Several causes or grounds can make a marriage invalid.

In the Church's canon law, marriage is presumed valid (a true marriage) until it is proven otherwise in the Church's court of law (the Tribunal) (canon 1060). Once a marriage has taken place, neither party may remarry in the Catholic Church, unless one party dies or the marriage is declared invalid by a Church Tribunal. Otherwise, the new marriage is invalid.

Catholics living in invalid marriages are not permitted to receive Holy Communion (canon 915). This traditional discipline was reaffirmed by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts on June 24, 2000. Also, on October 23, 2013,  Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, provided a summary of the doctrine of marriage that underlies this discipline.


Tribunal personnel are sensitive, professional individuals who keep all information strictly confidential. Only the parties themselves have a right to the information concerning their marriage.

Even though the process is a legal procedure involving a judge, the gathering of evidence is done privately, not in a courtroom setting. The parties do not face each other in the Tribunal.

People Involved

Petitioner and Respondent: The parties involved are the petitioner, who initiates the process, and the respondent.  Important: The burden of proof is on the part of the petitioner.

Advocates: Each party may appoint his or her own advocate. The advocate helps the party to present his or her cause, promotes the position of the party in the cause, and informs the party of his or her rights. Each party ordinarily also appoints his or her advocate as a proxy to represent him or her for procedural purposes of the cause.

In the Diocese of Honolulu, priests and deacons serve as advocates for the petitioner. In some parishes, certain other members of the parish staff may be trained as advocates.

The Tribunal also has a staff member available to serve as an advocate for the respondent: Dcn. Keith Cabiles (808) 203-6715.  He will be able to help the respondent to participate meaningfully in the process, to explain and safeguard his or her rights, and to represent him or her for procedural acts.

Judges: Judges are appointed by the bishop and must have degrees in canon law. Judges are assigned to causes by turn. The chief judge of the diocese is the judicial vicar.

Witnesses: Witnesses serve to corroborate the facts presented by the parties and testify to the character of the parties. The witnesses may be family or friends of the parties. Due to concerns for family harmony, children of the marriage are ordinarily discouraged from being witnesses.

Psychological Expert: If discretionary or psychological factors are being considered, the judge may request the services of a psychological expert.

Defender of the Bond: The defender of the bond is an officer of the Tribunal who is to appointed to propose everything that reasonably can be brought forth against a declaration of nullity. Like the judges, the defender of the bond is appointed by the bishop and must have a degree in canon law. The Church requires this officer to be involved in marriage causes so that the appearance that a declaration of nullity is merely a Church divorce is avoided.

Promoter of Justice: The promotor of justice is like the district attorney for the Church. He is not involved in marriage causes and usually is the same official as the defender of the bond.

Moderator of the Tribunal Chancery: The moderator of the Tribunal chancery is the chief notary of the Tribunal and serves basically as an office manager. Other notaries may also be appointed by the bishop to attest to the authenticity of the documents.

FAQs about respondents

Do I have to provide the respondent's address?

Yes. Because a marriage is a contract between two people, canon law recognizes the right of the respondent to be notified that a petition for a declaration of nullity has been submitted and to participate if he or she chooses.  If the respondent is not notified, then the process is invalid.

What if it is impossible for me to find the respondent?

A difficulty faced by many divorced persons prior to petitioning for a declaration of marital nullity is that of being unable to locate a former spouse. Often the current address of a respondent can be found through one of the various Internet people search engines.  Feel free to email the Tribunal office for help with this.

If that doesn't work, the Tribunal office has also arranged for a detective agency to conduct an electronic search that is 95% effective in locating a missing respondent. The cost is $95 if the petitioner provides the respondent's social security number for the search. (The cost is higher without the social security number, and this fee is in addition to the usual processing fee.) In those 5% of cases where the respondent still cannot be located, it might then be possible to process the cause of nullity without the respondent being notified.

What if the respondent is opposed to a declaration of nullity?

In this case, the Tribunal staff will be particularly careful to safeguard the rights of the respondent as he or she participates in the cause.  However, a respondent has no veto power over the process and does not need to agree to a declaration of nullity in order for one to be issued.

What if the respondent does not respond or refuses to participate?

Justice requires that the process continue in the situation where a respondent does not respond to invitations from the Tribunal to participate.  In that case, the judge must rely solely on the declarations of the petitioner and the testimony of the petitioner's witnesses in reaching his decision.

What if I am afraid that my former spouse will get angry or even violent?

The Tribunal has experience dealing with such situations.  The petitioner's current address can be withheld from the respondent upon request.  At no point in the process do the petitioner and respondent face each other.  Furthermore, often the behavior of an angry respondent can end up helping the petitioner's cause.

The Process

A petition for a declaration of nullity involves a process in a Church Tribunal. The goal is to determine the truth about a marriage in question.

A parish priest or deacon can help a person prepare the papers required to petition for a declaration of nullity.  The priest or deacon also verifies at this time if there is any possibility of reconciliation between the parties before beginning the process.

1.      A cause begins with a petitioner filling out a preliminary investigation form that covers the basic facts, including a current address for the respondent, and submits a list of witnesses. The petitioner also signs a mandate appointing his or her priest or deacon as a procurator-advocate, and submits copies of the following documents:

  • Baptismal certificates for the petitioner and respondent (only needed for Catholics)
  • Marriage certificate (Catholic if it was a Catholic wedding; otherwise civil)
  • Divorce decree

2.      Next, the Tribunal must establish its jurisdiction.  This procedure is handled by the Tribunal staff.  If the respondent does not live in the diocese, sometimes this takes a few weeks.

Note: If the respondent lives outside the United States of America and the marriage did not take place in Hawai'i, please call the Tribunal first, before filling out forms, to verify that we have jurisdiction to hear the cause.

3.      Once the Tribunal's jurisdiction is established, then the judge accepts the petition.  At the same time, a notice is sent to the respondent inviting him or her to participate in the cause and to state whether he or she is in favor or opposed of the declaration of nullity.  The respondent is given three weeks to respond.

4.      The next step is the formulation of the doubt (e.g., "Whether the nullity of the marriage has been proven on the ground of...").  This is the statement of the grounds being considered by the judge.  Both parties have a right to be informed of the formulation of the doubt and express any opinions about the grounds to the judge within two weeks.

5.      Next, evidence is gathered in the instruction stage. At this time, the petitioner is given another questionnaire (in addition to the preliminary investigation) to complete that is related to the grounds set for the cause.  If the respondent is involved, he or she also completes a questionnaireWitness testimony forms are also sent out at this time.  The judge directs the instruction of the cause, may call an oral hearing, and may set deadlines so that the cause is not prolonged. The respondent has a right to actively participate in the process, know what is being said, and contribute to the gathering of evidence. If a respondent refuses to cooperate with the Tribunal, then he or she is declared absent by the judge. If the respondent is opposed, then the Tribunal staff is especially careful in safeguarding the rights of the respondent. However, a respondent does not need to agree for a declaration of nullity to be given. The declaration of nullity is given or denied based on whether the ground for nullity is proven. A respondent who is opposed cannot stop the Church from declaring the truth about a marriage.

6.      Once the evidence has been gathered, then the parties are notified that they have a right to know what evidence is being considered by coming to the Tribunal office.  They must do this within two weeks.  Many times, however, the parties do not exercise this right and instead choose to entrust themselves to the justice of the Tribunal.

7.      Next the cause is concluded and sent to the defender of the bond to give his or her observations. The defender must point out all indications in the acts that suggest that the marriage is valid.

8.      After the defender of the bond has completed his or her review, the judge writes his decision. Notice of this decision is sent to the parties, and they have three weeks in which to lodge an appeal of this decision.

9.      All first instance affirmative decisions are subject to an automatic appeal to a second instance Tribunal.  The Tribunal of the Diocese of San Jose, California, serves as the Tribunal of appeal for the Diocese of Honolulu.  The second instance court involves a collegiate Tribunal of three judges. Two affirmative decisions on the same grounds are required for a declaration of nullity to be final.  The automatic appeal usually takes 3-4 months, depending on the complexity of the cause.

10.     A negative decision is given if a cause for nullity is not proven. In such causes, the presumption that the marriage is valid continues. A party may appeal or take recourse against a decision with which they do not agree. Parties who appeal or take recourse against a decision are responsible for bearing the expenses of the appeal or recourse.

Why does this process take so long?

The process must take a certain amount of time simply because of the steps that are required.

However, the # 1 reason why causes take a long time to process is because the witnesses do not submit their testimony in a timely fashion.


The fee for processing a declaration of nullity cause is $450. This fee is paid by the petitioner.  The petitioner is asked to submit $250 with the initial petition.  The additional $200 is due once the first instance decision is rendered.  Depending upon one's situation, other payment plans can be arranged. No refund is given for negative decisions.

The fee helps cover the salaries for the Tribunal personnel. It also helps cover the costs of running an office (e.g., office supplies, postage, telephone expenses, printing, photocopying, computer equipment and supplies, electricity). Compared to the cost of a civil divorce, $450 is a fair and reasonable fee. (This fee does not cover all expenses of the Tribunal which averages about $1,800 per cause.)

The Diocese of Honolulu subsidizes the Tribunal to cover the balance of the costs. The service offered by the Tribunal is an important one and benefits the whole Church. That is why the whole Church contributes to it through the diocesan subsidy. Yet it benefits those who use it in a very direct and important way. Those who benefit directly from this service should contribute to it. This has a parallel in the civil court system. People at large help support the court system through taxes. Those who use the court system and get a direct and personal benefit from it support it also by paying lawyer and filing fees.

Exceptions for the poor:  The Tribunal will hear without cost the cause of any person who is receiving total public assistance.  Other exceptions can be made on a case by case basis. Documentation is required, however, in regard to any request for a reduction of the fee. This will help guarantee that those who can afford to pay do so and that those who truly cannot afford the fee will not be deprived of justice because of their impoverished condition.