In the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, home to about 100,000 Catholics, declarations of invalidity – more widely known as annulments – are free.
But they haven’t always been that way.
The diocese charged about $400 for a formal case for a declaration of invalidity – an acknowledgment that a full
For more information or to schedule a presentation on declarations of invalidity in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, contact the Metropolitan Tribunal at (414) 769-3300 or email@example.com, or visit www.archmil.org/offices/.
For more answers to questions about annulments, Zabrina Decker, tribunal chancellor, recommends civil and canon lawyer Edward N. Peters’ book, “100 Answers to Your Questions on Annulments.”
sacramental marriage commitment was never achieved for a couple – until it was eliminated Feb. 2.
The change happened shortly after Pope Francis addressed the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal primarily responsible for hearing requests for marriage annulments, at a Jan. 24 meeting to inaugurate its judicial year, saying, “The sacraments are free. The sacraments give us grace. And a matrimonial process pertains to the sacrament of matrimony. How I wish that all processes were free.”
At the request of Bishop Martin J. Amos and with unanimous support from the presbyteral council, the Davenport Diocese eliminated the fee it charged for annulments, according to Fr. Paul Appel, judicial vicar of the diocesan tribunal.
“We briefly discussed changing the fee structure last year, but the pope’s comments quickly changed the conversation,” he wrote in an email to the Catholic Herald. “It involved a discussion with the finance office about shifting more expenses to the annual diocesan appeal and a consultation with the presbyteral council.”
The fee, which last year brought in $30,000 to the tribunal, whose office expense was around $150,000, helped pay for the salary of its four staff members, as well as the cost of postage, paper, computers, professional fees and maintaining an extensive archive and providing records to those who need them, Fr. Appel said.
Davenport’s annual diocesan appeal will be increased proportionally to cover the cost, allowing all of the parishes to contribute, he said.
Fr. Appel said the tribunal receives about 70 formal cases each year, which take around 14 months, more or less, to process from start to finish. They try to clear six decisions each month, not counting lack of form cases and ligamens, in which there are valid marriage bonds preventing entrance into a new marriage.
It’s too early to tell whether this change will affect the number of cases they receive, but Fr. Appel said he doesn’t anticipate a drastic change and encourages other dioceses to do the same.
“I would encourage all dioceses to follow the model set forth by the Holy Father and allow nothing to stand in the way of people approaching the Tribunal for this important process,” he wrote.
Pittsburgh also eliminated fees
The Diocese of Pittsburgh, home to more than 673,800 Catholics, also recently eliminated its fees of a couple hundred dollars for couples seeking an annulment in response to Pope Francis’ call to make them easier and free, according to an article published April 1 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The diocesan website, diopitt.org, states that there is no fee, “However, if one of the former spouses makes a personal decision to file an appeal to a higher Tribunal in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia or in Rome, that cost will not be covered by the Diocese of Pittsburgh.”
According to “For Your Marriage,” an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, fees associated with the annulment process vary within the U.S. “Most tribunals charge between $200 to $1,000 for a formal case depending on how much the diocese subsidizes the work of the tribunal,” according to its website, foryourmarriage.org. “Fees are typically payable over time, and may be reduced or even waived in cases of financial difficulty. Other expenses may be incurred when consultation with medical, psychological, or other experts is needed.”
Wisconsin fees vary
In Wisconsin, the petitioner fees vary: The Madison Diocese asks for $500 with the potential of additional expenses for expert opinions ($150), or advocates ($100); the Diocese of La Crosse charges $400, which its website notes is less than half the cost of processing a case; the Green Bay Diocese charges a maximum of $350 to cover half the cost of the process; and the Diocese of Superior requests a fee of $250.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s fee – $525 – is the highest in the state, but is in the middle nationally.
“It costs us actually twice that much to process a case, and that has to do with all the personnel here in the tribunal and the different steps that it goes through,” Zabrina Decker, tribunal chancellor and canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, told the Catholic Herald. “Sometimes, we need a psychological expert, which the petitioner, who is the one asking for the annulment, does not pay for. We pay for that, so that’s actually about half of what the actual case costs to process. The Catholic Stewardship Appeal picks up the other half, so we are blessed here in the archdiocese.”
The fee helps to defray the costs of personnel, materials and experts they may need to consult – including translation services to have information translated from English into any foreign language, or cultural experts familiar with different marriage traditions – because of the “great cultural diversity” in the archdiocese, she said.
According to the tribunal, of the 200-225 cases processed in 2014, 172 came to a decision: Eighty-three of them paid the full $525, bringing in $43,575, not including the portion paid by the Catholic Stewardship Appeal; 39 of them paid nothing, which equates to $20,475; and 43 paid partially, some of whom may still be making payments this year; the remaining cases were withdrawn by the petitioners.
No one turned away due to finances
While there hasn’t been a discussion about removing fees in the archdiocese, home to more than 591,800 Catholics, Decker said no case would be denied because of an inability to pay.
“There is a sliding scale, much like Catholic Charities has for certain services. We do, too, so people can have that $525 reduced or, if need be, it can be totally waived.” Decker said, explaining it depends on the individual’s financial circumstances.
People can pay by credit card, check or cash, or make small payments through a payment plan.
“We would never turn anyone away. …” she said of the approximately 250 requests their staff of seven receives each year. “Sometimes, that’s one of the misconceptions regarding an annulment is if you don’t pay you don’t get it and that’s just truly that – a misconception, and a huge one.”
So, what happens when someone doesn’t pay?
“The archdiocese would absorb whatever isn’t covered but, again, that’s all part of the ministry, so for those who can, they do (pay) and for those who can’t, we work with them,” she said.
A case takes about a year to a year and a half to process from the date of the petitioner’s deposition with the tribunal, according to Decker. Each case is unique and circumstances determine the length of time needed to come to a decision, as well as whether appointments need to be rescheduled or paperwork isn’t handed in on time. The longest she has seen a case take to be processed in her 16 years with the tribunal is up to two or two-and-a-half years, but that’s not the norm.
“We’re doing a lot because we really do encourage the participation of both parties, so the petitioner always comes in for an interview, but we encourage the participation of the respondent,” Decker said. “We would like to have both parties come in and talk to us, or at least to provide us with information and that takes – it’s a lot of time, time well-spent because we really do consider this a ministry of the church.”
Decker said rethinking the archdiocese’s fees might be a discussion down the road.
“I think because of all the different options that we have, with the ability to waive a fee or reduce a fee, or to have people make small payments, it’s not something that is immediately a need for us. It would be, I think, a very positive thing if we were ever able to do that, but right now we are not in a place to be able to do that. …” she said. “The Holy Father made a great observation that, yes, the sacraments of the church are free, and that’s true, and so we need to be attentive to that.”
Decker said she wouldn’t anticipate a flood of cases if the fee was removed, but maybe a few more spurred by media attention.
“It’s always a positive thing to be able to provide greater service to the people of God and this would be a way to do that, so if we can in the future, I’m sure there will be some discussion,” she said.
Overall, requests for annulments in the archdiocese have decreased; when Decker started working in the tribunal, a staff of 14 saw anywhere from 600 to 800 cases in a year.
“It has to do, I think, with probably more Catholics getting married outside the church, more Catholics getting remarried outside the church without the benefit of an annulment and marrying in the church. …” she said. “Maybe more cohabitation between couples, so some couples, unfortunately, are not even looking at marriage and then I know that the numbers of marriages in the church have been falling, and especially as we said, second marriages.”
Decker and tribunal staff members give presentations and answer questions on annulments – in English and Spanish – annually in each district and as requested.
Their office works in conjunction with the Nazareth Project for Marriage and Family Formation, an archdiocesan office of the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, on marriage preparation.
“It’s very important to us that we do marriage preparation, and we do it well, so that couples know what the church expects of them in marriage,” she said. “If we do that well, then our numbers here in the tribunal will keep going down and that’s OK – we’re happy about that.”