Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Marriage Annulment Laws of the Old West

Countless novels and movies have made it seem so simple to rip up a marriage by its roots by filing for an annulment. The reason given is that the couple was underage, or the marriage was never consummated.

When I decided to use the device in my latest historical romance, Dreams of My Heart, I never “dreamed” the statues of Montana Territory in the nineteenth century regarding annulment were so complicated. But my research revealed that the legal proceedings could prove to be quite humiliating and embarrassing for the couple.

To complete the paperwork for an annulment, the precise reason for granting the voidance of the marriage had to be listed. That would seem simple enough for a couple over the age of consent. The aggrieved party could say that the marriage was never consummated. Unfortunately, the court wanted to know why the marriage was never consummated.

An annulment or divorce was quite a public affair in those days. Not only would the filing become public record, it would most likely be published in the local newspaper or spread by word of mouth. The couple would be required to testify before a judge in open court. In fact, any member of the community could attend the legal proceedings. The annulment of a marriage or divorce was rare, and neighbors often wanted to know all the details of a split.

Other grounds acceptable for an annulment included an incestuous relationship, or fraud perpetrated on one of the parties in some way such as by committing bigamy. An annulment could also be sought if it was revealed that one of the parties was a felon and wanted for arrest when the couple exchanged their vows.

If none of those reasons applied, the court would want to know whether the husband or wife was either mentally or physically incapacitated, which would include feeblemindedness or impotence.

An annulment hearing was an intrusive and intimate proceeding. The judge could discuss any of these reasons in open court before a packed house. And worse yet, if a reporter was present, the couple's testimony could be published in lurid detail for everyone to read.


My feisty Irish bride Kate O'Brien McKean asks her husband for an annullment in Dreams of My Heart, book 1 of The Reluctant Brides series, setting off a chain reaction of events that endangers them both. The historical romance set in 1875 Montana Territory releases April 1 from Mountain Brook Ink. The ebook is available for preorder on Amazon.

After a career spent acquiring and editing books by numerous bestselling Christian authors, Barbara J. Scott has returned to her true love—writing. Barbara and her husband Mike live in the Nashville area, with their two Chihuahuas, Riley and Sissy, both rescued from puppy mills. Reading, writing, and research are her passions. Want to know more? Connect with Barbara at www.BarbaraJScott.com.


  1. Wow, that does sound embarrassing! Thanks for the info!

  2. This was really interesting, Barbara. I'm never really thought much about annulment laws. Having your private life made public would have quite humiliating.

  3. And you did a stellar job showing how these laws would affect the average couple over 100 years ago. It really brought reality to the story. I LOVED this book! Thanks for sharing this. It's always fun to find out these little-known facts in history.