Divorce Grounds and Fault
Summary in Divorce

Grounds are the legal reasons for requesting a divorce. Contemporary divorce law makes it easier to move a divorce through the courts, but the spouses have to have a reason for a divorce and present it to a judge.

Each state’s statutory law defines the legal circumstances that are grounds for divorce, and each state has different standards as to what are sound grounds. When the facts meet the statutory criteria for ending a marriage, the aggrieved spouse is said to have grounds for action. A couple must have a reason to end a marriage. That reason may be that the marriage is irretrievably broken down, or that the two spouses now have irreconcilable differences, but there has to be a reason. Even spouses who married common law must have grounds to end the marriage. No one can legally end a marriage just by walking away.

Some people confuse grounds with fault. Grounds for a divorce only refers to the reason for the divorce; fault refers to the fact that someone did something wrong. Under no-fault, a couple have grounds for divorce when they agree that they can no longer make their marriage work, yet neither is at fault for this breakdown.

Back in the bad old days, one of the alienated spouses had to accuse the other of doing something wrong in order to get a divorce. That "something wrong" was often an affair, but it could also have been cruelty, abuse, or abandonment. The idea of fault implied a moral responsibility for failure. Or, even when both of them were equally responsible and each wanted to escape a failed marriage, someone had to "take the fall," that is, be at fault.

No longer do spouses have to accuse spouses of an egregious wrong; instead they must state that the marriage has suffered an irretrievable breakdown.
This is the ground for divorce, but no one is at fault.

In all, 33 states still have fault grounds for divorce; however, every state offers no-fault as an option. Fault jurisdictions offer some or all of nine fault grounds, with the first -- adultery -- being the most common because it was seen as most reprehensible. Other fault grounds include deviant sexual conduct, a kind of catchall into which some jurisdictions include homosexual adultery; extreme cruelty or cruel and inhuman treatment, which can be just about anything that makes it unreasonable or unhealthy for the spouses to stay married; habitual drunkenness, usually for more than one year; mental illness, usually with institutionalization for a year or more; sexual desertion, which means carnal abandonment; drug addiction, which means nonmedical use of narcotics; and nonsupport.

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