The Reason for the Divorce
Key Points
  • When one files for a divorce, he or she must state the grounds upon which the marriage should be dissolved. These grounds (reasons) vary from state-to-state, but fault is no longer a requirement. All states offer no-fault grounds which are typically irretrievable breakdown or irreconcilable differences.
  • You can have a divorce that is based on a fault ground and it still be uncontested. People often confuse no-fault and uncontested to mean the same thing and that they must go hand in hand. At the same time a spouse can fight or argue a no-fault ground if he or she desires to save the marriage.

Grounds are the legal reasons for requesting a divorce. When one spouse initiates a divorce by filing a complaint or petition, he or she must state the reason for the divorce. The reason or reasons are the grounds, and the parties -- the spouses -- present that reason to the court.

Each state’s statutory law defines the grounds for divorce, so within each jurisdiction, grounds have precise legal definitions. When the facts meet the statutory criteria for ending a marriage under a state’s divorce laws, the aggrieved spouse is said to have sufficient grounds for action. He or she becomes the plaintiff or petitioner, who is the party initiating the action. The party who replies is the defendant or respondent.

Since the 1970s, states have permitted no-fault divorces, which may be either contested or uncontested. No fault grounds -- either "irreconcilable differences," "irretrievable breakdown" or physical separation -- lend themselves to uncontested divorce, which means they have decided to work out their differences themselves rather than have a judge do it for them.

Even in liberal divorce, 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.

Each state has different procedures and rules as to what are sound grounds. A lawyer guides his or her client through the particularities of the state’s statutory divorce law -- for example, not only the applicability of grounds, but also residency requirements, which vary from state to state.

Contemporary divorce law makes it easier to move a divorce through the courts. For example, in some jurisdictions, couples, citing irretrievable breakdown or irreconcilable differences, can file as co-petitioners and vastly simplify and speed up their divorce, yet even in this no-fault route the action has grounds.

Some people confuse "grounds" with "fault". Under no-fault, spouses have grounds for divorce when they agree that they can no longer make their marriage work, yet neither spouse is at fault for this breakdown. Grounds for a divorce only refers to the reason for the divorce; fault refers to the fact that someone -- either spouse -- did something wrong. When spouses say they can no longer make their marriage work, it may mean that they can no longer get along, or that one or both of them no longer wants to be married, or, as the song says, "it’s just no good anymore." In no-fault actions in most jurisdictions, the court does not dwell on the "why" of the marital breakdown.

In the past (before no-fault), the alienated spouses who wanted to part ways had to accuse the other of doing something wrong in order to get a divorce. That often made divorce court into a liar’s club and demonstrated how skillfully otherwise law-abiding citizens could be at perjury, particularly when they were coached by lawyers. That "something wrong" was often an affair, but it could also have been something else -- cruelty, abuse, or abandonment.

Today 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, however, still counts as a reason. This is the ground for divorce, but no one is at fault.

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