46 Years Ago, California Passed the First No Fault Divorce Law, pasadena law firm

46 Years Ago, California Passed the First No Fault Divorce Law

Divorce may seem like a relatively modern trend from the second half of the 20th century, but divorce and determining the “lawful” reasons to justify it goes back thousands of years. Even the bible indicates that one of the more famous questions asked of Jesus was, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” and in fact one popular school of religious thought at the time held that burning a meal was sufficient grounds for divorce. Despite such early, expansive views on the justification for divorce, it was not until 1969 that California became the first state in the country to allow for “no fault” divorces, meaning that courts would grant a married couple a divorce even if there was no fault alleged and even where one party did not want the divorce.

Proving “Grounds” For Divorce

Previous to 1969, California was in line with the rest of the country with regards to divorce — in order for a court to grant a divorce, at least one party to the marriage had to prove to the court that there were grounds for divorce. The grounds for divorce differed from state to state, but in California, there were specifically seven: 1) adultery, 2) extreme cruelty, 3) willful desertion, 4) willful neglect, 5) habitual intemperance (also known as regular drunkenness), 6) conviction of a felony, and 7) incurable insanity (the California divorce law in 1851 also included grounds for impotence and fraud, but those eventually fell by the wayside). California’s seven grounds for divorce were more encompassing than the average state at the time – and therefore liberal in permitting divorce – but most states had some similar, if shorter, lists of grounds.

Governor Reagan Signs No Fault Divorce Into Law

A new era of divorce law in America began when Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act of 1969 into law, making no fault divorce a reality.  Under the new law, neither party had to prove fault in order to obtain a divorce, and either party could obtain the divorce without the consent of the other party.  California family courts began approaching divorces with a primary focus on the equitable division of property among the parties, with far less of a focus on particular actions taken with regard to the relationship, such as adultery, neglect, and so on. While these “fault” types of issues may still affect a court’s approach to certain questions such as those relating to custody and may factor into the terms of a prenuptial agreement (e.g. the terms might indicate that a party who is found to have committed adultery may forfeit the rights to certain benefits following divorce), the courts largely steer clear of such issues in dividing assets between the parties. And, perhaps most importantly, one party to a marriage can no longer “force” the other party to stay in the marriage against his or her will without proving fault.

Other States Follow California’s Lead

After California’s passage of its no-fault divorce law, most other states passed similar no fault laws in the following decades, with New York curiously being the final holdout, not adopting a no fault divorce law until 2010 (prior to that, couples wishing to divorce had to either show fault or be legally separated for a year prior to a court granting a divorce). Critics have suggested that no fault divorce laws have increased the rate of divorce by making the process easier, but the truth is that, prior to no fault divorce law, parties who wished to divorce had the incentive to simply lie to the court about the grounds for divorce, or to intentionally commit acts creating grounds for the divorce. By making the divorce process less intrusive into the personal lives of the parties (e.g. requiring parties to share intimate and perhaps embarrassing details in a public forum), the process is simpler for parties wishing to move on and less burdensome on taxpayers and families alike.

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