Forty-six years ago, Governor Ronald Reagan passed the Family Law Act of 1969, eliminating the “fault divorce” in California.
In a “fault divorce” proceeding, which is still available in 33 states today, one spouse claims that the other spouse behaved in a way that constituted “grounds” for divorce. Examples of grounds for divorce include cruelty, adultery or abandonment. Essentially, one spouse sues the other spouse for these actions, requiring the initiating spouse to prove the actions in order to obtain the divorce. Upon doing so, these grounds are then considered by the court in determining division of property and alimony.
What about the couples who want a divorce, but neither have committed any acts constituting fault grounds? Many parties would lie to the court, making up false accusations of grounds for divorce. As such a common occurrence, this became the main justification for the policy change towards the “no fault” divorce.
Today, a marriage dissolution or legal separation can be obtained in California only on the grounds of irreconcilable differences or incurable insanity. The spouse or domestic partner that is asking for the divorce does not have to prove that the other spouse or domestic partner did something wrong. The California Family Code offers no specific definition of “irreconcilable differences,” it simply requires the court to find there are “substantial reasons for not continuing the marriage which make it appear the marriage should be dissolved.” The irreconcilable differences standard is intentionally broad, making the underlying allegations of fault irrelevant. Irreconcilable differences has also been described as “fundamental disagreements that can’t be resolved by the parties, so that the relationship can’t be saved.”
In practice, the issue of whether irreconcilable differences actually exist is rarely a debate between the parties. Courts will simply accept either spouse’s own belief that the difficulties of the marriage are irreconcilable, thus a substantial reason for not continuing the marriage.
Critics of the “no fault” divorce claim that it is the cause of the rise in divorce rates over the past several decades. However, most attorneys find no-fault divorces are much less stressful, and more likely to produce an amicable relationship between the spouses after the divorce, a benefit in particular to the children. No-fault divorce allows for quicker emotional healing and courtroom processes and less arguing between the parties.