What Are Grounds For Divorce?

Written by Laura Sands and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Offering grounds for divorce to a court means a person is presenting specific reasons for seeking the legal termination of a marriage. Reasons, or grounds, given can vary and may include things like incompatibility, abuse, or insanity. In America, there are 17 states where the opportunity to state grounds for a divorce generally does not exist. These states are called “true” no-fault states and are listed below. The remaining 33 states offer people the option of choosing to state grounds or not. When grounds for divorce are offered, these cases are commonly referred to as a fault divorces. In cases where no grounds are offered, these types of divorces are referred to as no-fault.

Why Offer Grounds For Divorce?

Generally speaking, people use grounds as a way of accusing the other spouse of causing the divorce due to certain behaviors or actions, which occurred during the course of the marriage. Couples who would like a court to decide on things like child custody, visitation, dividing real property, and other important matters raised during a divorce sometimes offer grounds with the hopes of persuading a court to rule in favor of their wishes for these outcomes. For example, an individual may claim physical abuse as the cause of the marriage’s demise and request primary custody of the children in the process. A person may do so with an intent to prove to the court that the other parent is too violent or otherwise unfit to have sole or shared custody of a child.

No-Fault vs. Fault States

In 17 states, offering grounds for divorcing is not an option. These states, known as “true” no-fault states include:

  • Wisconsin
  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Nevada
  • Nebraska
  • Montana
  • Missouri
  • Minnesota
  • Michigan
  • Kentucky
  • Kansas
  • Iowa
  • Indiana
  • Hawaii
  • Florida
  • Colorado
  • California

The District of Columbia is also a true no-fault divorce jurisdiction.

In these courts, the most commonly used reason for divorce is “irreconcilable differences”. This is a term that can apply to multiple reasons why a couple simply is not seeing eye-to-eye and one or both parties wishes to terminate the marriage. While, technically, citing irreconcilable differences seems like a reason is being offered, it is actually considered an umbrella term for no-fault divorces.

Certain true no-fault states still have unique loopholes which can allow grounds to be included in a divorce petition. For example, in California a person can request a fault divorce for reasons of the other spouse being insane. As with all fault divorces, the person offering such grounds must be able to prove that the other spouse is certifiably insane before a divorce can be granted on those grounds.

In 33 other states, no-fault divorce is an option offered alongside fault divorces. In some of these jurisdictions, a no-fault divorce may only be granted if certain stipulations are met. For example, certain states may require a couple to be separated for a period of time before a divorce is ultimately granted. In Florida, courts can even require couples with minor children to undergo marriage counseling before finalizing a divorce.

The Most Common Grounds Offered for Divorce

While sufficient grounds for divorce may vary from state to state, the following reasons are typically acceptable in all courts:

  • Abandonment
  • Abuse
  • Addiction
  • Adultery
  • Felony conviction or imprisonment
  • Incompatibility
  • Insanity
  • Living separately
  • Not consummating the marriage
  • Physical incapacity

Objecting to Grounds For Divorce

If filing for a divorce in a state that offers a fault option, a spouse petitioning the courts may state any of the aforementioned grounds for divorce. However, the spouse must be prepared to prove to the court that the grounds stated are, in fact, valid. At the same time, the other spouse may object to the grounds and defend themselves to the court. In other words, just because one spouse states specific grounds, it doesn’t mean that a court will automatically accept them as the actual reasons for the marriage’s demise.

For example, in cases where adultery is offered as grounds for divorce, it is not unheard of for a spouse to defend themselves by offering evidence that the spouse making such a claim agreed to an open marriage, engaged in their own extramarital affairs, or even invited a third person into the marriage. Also, in proceedings where both spouses are accusing the other of destroying the marriage, this is known as “comparative rectitude”. When this happens, a court has the difficult task of weighing all of the accusations presented by both spouses, listening to the testimony of any witnesses, and reviewing all evidence presented in order to determine whether or not one person did more damage to the marriage than the other.

The Pros and Cons of Offering Divorce Grounds

Couples generally find a no-fault divorce to be a faster and often less expensive option than divorces where grounds are offered. When submitting reasons for a divorce and asking the court to weigh in on these reasons, a petitioner is then burdened with the task of providing strong evidence to support their grounds. Often, this requires the hiring of specialists like private investigators, accountants, appraisers, or professional witnesses. The cost for an attorney’s billable hours can also be much higher as more time must be dedicated to the process of helping to establish timelines, witness interviews, court appearances, and other work necessary in supporting a petitioner’s claims.

While offering grounds for divorce can be costly and lengthen the divorce process, many prefer this route when trying to prove they are deserving of the amount of spousal support they are requesting, as well as other things the court is being asked to rule upon such as:

  • Who should have primary custody of a child
  • Establishing one spouse as an unfit parent
  • How financial assets should be divided
  • The length of time separation is required before divorce can be granted

An issue which can be considered a pro or a con for no-fault divorce, depending on individual perspective, is that a spouse cannot stop a divorce from happening if the other spouse initiates it. Even if she or he sincerely does not want the marriage to end, there is nothing that a spouse can do to stop the courts from granting a no-fault divorce once it is being pursued, even without any stated grounds.

No-fault divorces also do not assign any responsibility or penalty to any one spouse for a marriage’s demise. This means that, even if one spouse has been unfaithful or has broken their marriage vows in some other way, there is no punishment, financial or otherwise, for doing so.

History of Providing Grounds for Divorce

In the United States, California was the first jurisdiction to stop requiring grounds while offering no-fault divorces in 1970. Other states eventually joined in offering divorces where grounds were not required and by 2010 all states offered some form of no-fault divorce. Prior to these changes in divorce laws, individuals in every state were required to offer specific reasons for divorcing and if they could not prove their grounds in court, a divorce would not be granted.

Since that time, people who oppose this new era of divorce laws have argued that no-fault divorces contribute to a rise in divorce rates. Others appreciate that an individual is free to exit a marriage at any time without having to prove a cause and regardless as to whether or not the other spouse wants to divorce. Before the advent of no-fault divorces, a spouse who left the marriage without legally divorcing, even if fleeing abuse, could be sued by the other spouse for abandonment.

Are Grounds for Divorce Really Necessary?

No. In the United States, a spouse who no longer wants to be married does not have to submit grounds for divorce before one can be granted. Generally speaking, if filing for a divorce in one of the true no-fault divorce states listed above, the option to present grounds for divorce doesn’t even exist. If filing for a divorce in one of the other 33 states where grounds are accepted, doing so is merely an option available to those who may want to.

Generally speaking, offering grounds for divorce, as well as objecting to divorce grounds may cause the divorce process to be drawn out as an investigation of each claim typically follows. In addition to requiring more time, divorces with stated grounds can also cost more as attorneys will have more work to do and other professionals may be called upon. This may or may not be worth the effort, time, and money involved depending upon what a person who chooses to state grounds is trying to achieve in the divorce. Any person who is unsure about citing grounds for divorce should check all local divorce laws, as well as consult an attorney in the state where a divorce will be filed.

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