Honoring Year of Mercy, Pittsburgh Diocese Eliminates Annulment Fees

While many dioceses strive to waive fees for financial hardship, a successful diocesan fundraising campaign gave Bishop David Zubik the freedom to eliminate them altogether in Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH — Catholics applying for the annulment process in the Diocese of Pittsburgh will no longer have to pay any kind of fee, effective immediately.

In the middle of Holy Week celebrations, Bishop David Zubik released a letter stating that, “effective immediately,” the diocese was eliminating “all fees for those seeking an annulment in our marriage tribunal.”

Bishop Zubik said that he and his staff had “long dreamed” of making this decision and hoped it would help “bring many people closer to Jesus and the sacraments.”

“I thought it would be a good running start for our observance of this holy Year for Mercy,” Bishop Zubik told the Register.

Two important events came together to make the diocesan decision possible during Holy Week: Pope Francis’ call for a Year of Mercy and the diocese’s record-setting fundraising campaign.

“When the Holy Father spoke out, I really felt this was important to move as quickly as we possibly could do it,” the bishop said.

The success of the diocese’s “Our Campaign for the Church Alive!” fundraiser allowed the diocese to dedicate $200,000 needed to eliminate the fees entirely. Once the diocesan staff came up with a plan about how they could do it, Bishop Zubik made the decision to announce it during Holy Week.

“Each annulment case costs about $2,000 or more,” Bishop Zubik explained, saying that the fees covered the costs of canon lawyers, secretarial staff, taking testimony and doing paperwork, etc. While a petitioner’s contribution previously was $500, the biggest portion was already subsidized by the diocese.

He said there were two areas of concern: people who could not afford the fee (even though they did grant exceptions) and people who would not approach the process in principle over the fee.

“We just wanted to remove that particular barrier so people would know that we were taking seriously the Holy Father’s call that annulments could proceed forward without having a fee.”

Over the course of four years, $50,000 in annual grants from the campaign will cover the lost income from the fees, and, by the fifth year, the cost will be covered entirely out of the annual diocesan appeal.


A Growing Trend

The Pittsburgh Diocese joins a growing trend of U.S. dioceses opting to eliminate fees altogether for annulment cases — a trend that has picked up during the pontificate of Pope Francis. In 2014, the Dioceses of Rochester, N.Y., Cleveland, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., decided to eliminate the annulment fee and subsidize costs entirely from their operating budgets.

Among dioceses in the U.S. that still have fees, all heavily absorb the costs associated with the declaration of nullity process, and many try to eliminate any hardship left with the fees.

“Speaking to dioceses informally, there is definitely a general trend of willingness to waive fees and in numerous cases treating fees more like free-will offerings than something where a person actually receives a bill,” said Don Clemmer, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

In the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., for example, petitioners for a declaration of nullity are asked to pay a filing fee of $25 and a make a contribution of $250, payable in installments, to help the diocese defray part of the costs. In cases needing only minimal paperwork, the diocese requests only a $40 contribution. In all cases, the fees can be reduced or waived entirely, and the diocese makes clear on its website, “No case will be turned away or denied a fair hearing because of the inability to pay in full.”

“Many tribunals, including ours, do ask for a fee or some contribution toward the cost of an annulment process,” said J.D. Flynn, a canonist and special counsel to Bishop James Conley of Lincoln.

Flynn said that the average diocesan tribunal would not turn away a case due to an inability to afford the fee. He was also not aware of any diocese that had turned away a petitioner over an inability to pay.

“So in our diocese, if a person is not able to give anything, they don’t give anything,” he said. “The case just proceeds in the ordinary fashion.”


Removing Another Obstacle

The costs associated with an annulment vary from diocese to diocese in the United States. According to Gregory Mills, executive director with the Catholic Divorce Ministry, the cost spectrum ranges from “nothing” to as much as $1,000 (which still does not cover the full cost of the process).

Mills, who was divorced and went through the declaration-of-nullity process himself, said the decision to eliminate fees altogether removes “one more obstacle” for divorced Catholics considering going through the annulment process.

But he said not every diocese has the financial wherewithal to completely subsidize the process for every case.

Although for some persons considering an annulment the fees are an actual financial hardship, Mills believes that for many the fees function more as a psychological hurdle for a person approaching an emotionally challenging process. But he said it’s not the most important problem the Church faces regarding annulments.

“The single biggest problem we face is misinformation,” Mills said, adding that both laypeople and even clergy need education in what the declaration of nullity actually means.

Common misconceptions involve, for example, looking at the annulment process as “Catholic divorce” or believing that divorced people are not able to receive Communion. Mills said he talked with three people recently who thought they were “excommunicated” because they were divorced.

“If you’re divorced and not [civilly] remarried, and you’re in the state of grace, you’re free to receive the sacraments,” he said.


Fishers of the Divorced

The comments left on the Pittsburgh Diocese’s Facebook page have been overwhelmingly positive toward the news, with some saying they are now contacting their parishes to go through with the annulment process.

Becca Smith, who is divorced but not remarried, commented, “[T]he cost of an annulment has personally been prohibitive, so with this great news I called my advocate today.”

Jodie Lydic testified to the hardship she faced and said that when she had to pay the $650 fee, she “felt at the time as a single mom they took food out of my children’s mouths” to pay for the process.

“I couldn’t be happier they are getting rid of the cost to all those already suffering,” she said.

Father John Hissrich, pastor of St. Malachy in Coraopolis, Pa., added, “We priests want to encourage people to take part in the annulment process to aid in healing. How great that I can now tell people that there is no fee for the process. Thank you, Bishop Zubik.”

Bishop Zubik said the diocese has programs to assist Catholics who have been recently divorced and support groups for divorced and separated Catholics. The diocese also has a training program for “parish advocates,” people who are trained to assist Catholics in petitioning for a declaration of nullity and walking them through the process and the paperwork, and the bishop explained that most parishes have them.

The bishop added that the diocese has averaged 175 annulment cases a year, lasting nine-10 months on average. He said that he wants many more divorced Catholics to take advantage of the process now that the fees are gone.

Said Bishop Zubik, “It’s my hope that we’ll be flooded with requests, and we’ll be able to work with them.”



Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.