When filing for divorce, one required piece of information is what is known as "grounds." This refers to the reason that a divorce is sought; laws differ from state to state, but when establishing "fault" there are typically options such as adultery, domestic abuse, substance abuse, and so on. Many states also have an option known as "no fault." Read on to learn the history and implications of no-fault divorce in the United States.
The Origins of No-Fault Divorce
In 1953, Oklahoma did away with the requirement for a spouse to find fault in the marriage in order to divorce. 17 years later, in 1970, California passed the first no-fault divorce law in the country, which finally changed the way people look at divorce and ultimately made it easier to leave a marriage. The Family Law Act was signed by Governor Ronald Reagan and took effect on January 1, 1970. By 1983, every state but New York and North Dakota had passed their own forms of no-fault divorce laws.
No-fault laws took away the need to accuse a spouse of any of the qualifications that had been previously relied upon in order to establish a divorce. No-fault divorce laws give either party the freedom to sue for divorce with a claim of “irreconcilable differences.” Borne of these laws was the concept of unilateral divorce: either partner feeling the urge to end the marriage could do so and was free to leave.
Two Sides to Every Story
Some believe that the high rate of divorce in the United States is a direct result of no-fault divorce laws. The debate between religious groups and politically liberal groups has become contentious and rampant with contradictory evidence meant to support the arguments of both groups.
The question that needs to be considered by both groups is which laws, fault or no-fault will best benefit the needs of a husband, wife and the children involved in a divorce.
All states have gone to no-fault divorce with some states also allowing grounds for divorce as an option. Southern states such as Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have the most relaxed divorce laws as well as the highest divorce rates in the country.
A few states—Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona—have passed laws that give couples the option to choose, before they marry, which laws they would want to apply to their divorce should the marriage end. They can choose between “covenant marriage” or the no-fault option. In covenant marriage, couples agree to pre-marital counseling and to limit the grounds and options should they decide to divorce.
Although statistics seem to point to an increase in divorce since the beginning of no-fault laws, it would seem that the laws are popular with the general public. In Louisiana, nearly 97% of couples are choosing to go the no-fault route.
A Brief Legal Background
No-fault laws are the result of divorce lawyers and Family Court Judges trying to change the way divorces played out in court. They found that feuding couples would be more likely to distort facts or lie rather than act reasonably to figure out the true reason for their marriage's dissolution. In their minds, the old fault system of divorce was a threat to the integrity of the Family Court System and changes needed to be made.
As early as the 1930s, a treatise on American Family Court Law had complained:
“In divorce litigation it is well known that parties often seek to evade statutory limitations and thus there is great danger of perjury, collusion and fraud. In many cases no defense is interposed, and often when the case is contested the content is not waged with vigor or good faith.”
The Pros and Cons
- States that adopted no-fault laws saw a decline in the rates of domestic violence
- Similarly to the point above, abused spouses may feel more empowered to leave a marriage if they do not have to publicly testify about their abuser or the acts of abuse that occurred in the relationship
- Lessens emotional harm to children whose parents are divorcing
- Reduces the heavy caseloads of family courts
- Shortens the length of time it takes to obtain a divorce, which, in turn, shortens the amount of time spent in a stressful situation
- Divorce settlements are based on need, ability to pay, and contribution to the family finances, rather than on fault
- Over 80% of no-fault divorces are unilateral meaning that one party to the divorce objects to the marriage ending and no-fault laws take away that party's control over whether or not they can save their marriage
- Gives more power to Family Court Judges in deciding issues such as custody, division of marital assets, and spousal support; when there is no one at fault, a judge’s decisions are based on feelings and feelings are not always objective
- Similarly to the point above, courts have historically favored mothers, and under the no-fault system it is hard to prove a mother as an unfit parent
- Marriage vows lose their value
- Lowers a dependent wife’s living standards because she no longer has grounds to argue in her defense; and since the mother gets custody more often than the father, this also means a lower standard of living for the children
- The goal of Family Court is no longer to protect a marriage, but instead to clear its caseload
Where It Stands
Family Court Judge Randall Hekman said, "It is easier to divorce my wife of 26 years than to fire someone I hired one week ago. The person I hire has more legal clout than my wife of 26 years. That's wrong."
The debate continues to rage today. Some claim a breakdown of the American family, which they may attribute to the introduction of no-fault divorce laws. They believe the value of marriage has lessened and because of this, spouses are no longer willing to invest as much energy into saving it.
On the other hand, 97% of married couples in Louisiana choosing to begin their marriages knowing they may one day have to deal with no-fault laws. Evidence that points to the fact that the majority of the couples have no problem with the no-fault laws.
Whether you agree or not, the option to have a no-fault divorce is there. Should you decide to dissolve your marriage, assigning fault can be a spark that ignites a firestorm over entire process. A no-fault divorce may be the easy way out.