Vatican lawyers rake in cash as 'widow wars' go beyond the grave

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The Independent Online

Roman Catholic Italy is witnessing a boom in demand for posthumous marriage annulments with many unions hitting the rocks as soon as one of the partners is lowered into the ground.

Roman Catholic Italy is witnessing a boom in demand for posthumous marriage annulments with many unions hitting the rocks as soon as one of the partners is lowered into the ground.

The surge in annulments, which is proving lucrative for ecclesiastical lawyers at the Holy Rota court in Rome, is largely down to applications by widowers who want to annul their first marriage to a dead wife so that they can favour children of a second marriage in their wills. Conversely, children of a first marriage who want to annul their dead father's second marriage so as not to lose an inheritance are also flooding the court.

As recently as 1982 Rome's opposition to divorce meant that only 287 requests for annulments were examined by the Holy Rota.By 2002, however, the bishops and cardinals presided over 1,280 cases, issuing verdicts on 135 of those of which 73 were granted, the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, said.

Under Canon law, annulments may only be granted if it is proved that a marriage was not valid when contracted, with 98 per cent of annulments based on psychiatric evidence that one or both partners were too "immature" to appreciate the seriousness of their vows, according to statistics released by the Holy See yesterday. The Pope has repeatedly admonished the Rota judges against granting annulments too easily and is expected to reiterate his conservative stance when he opens the Holy Rota's judicial year next week.

"The Holy Rota is bursting with cases because of a new tendency by those who believe they have the right to 'posthumous' annulments," La Stampa said.

As a result of the growing number of dead people whose marriages are being disputed, the 20 judges of the Rota are struggling with a backlog. The official average cost of a lawyer qualified to work in the Rota is €2,500 (£1,600) but a top brief will often charge many times that figure.

Church sources say boredom between well-off partners and the "culture of divorce" are more common motives for applications. Americans, Italians and Poles have the most cases examined by the Rota followed by Spaniards, Canadians and Mexicans with British Catholics the 10th most likely to have their annulment request examined. After immaturity, procedural irregularities and impotence are among the main reasons cited.

MPs from Italy's former communist Democratic Party, meanwhile, are trying to close a legal loophole under which husbands who obtain an annulment in a church court are not obliged to pay alimony to their former wives.

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