A Look Back on Divorce Law

A divorce is never an easy thing to go through, but it used to be a lot worse. Until relatively recently, the person seeking a divorce had to argue that the spouse was at “fault” either by way of adultery, abandonment, cruel treatment, or mental illness. And any of those causes could be nullified by the condoning or conniving or recrimination of the petitioning spouse.

As all divorce lawyers in California could no doubt tell you, the Golden State became the first in the union to allow no-fault divorces in 1969, which don’t please everyone (presumably the spouse who is precipitously and unceremoniously divorced) but certainly make the process a lot simpler. A no-fault divorce allowed the dissolution of a marriage without accusing one of the parties with adultery or a similar transgression.

divorce-decreeEventually other states followed California’s lead. At this point, all 50 states and the District of Columbia allow no-fault divorce. In fact, only 33 states still allow for fault divorces, Georgia being one of them. That means that in 17 states and the District of Columbia, the petitioner can’t legally cast blame on the respondent even if he or she is filing in response to adultery, cruelty, or abandonment.

In the early decades of the United States, women’s status as second-class legal entities (or in some cases, non-entities) made it difficult to walk away from a divorce with any of the shared assets. Obviously, that gave wives a strong disincentive to seek divorce no matter what state their marriage was in.

The first major attempts to remedy the situation were the Married Women’s Property Acts passed by individual states beginning in 1839, which allowed women possess real and personal property, sign contracts, file lawsuits, and inherit independently. Despite the legislation, women still found themselves at a financial disadvantage in divorce proceedings, and divorce did not become terribly common until much later.

Statistically, women initiated more than two-thirds of all divorce cases in the United States. In 2002, 29% of first marriages among women aged 15-44 were disrupted (by divorce, annulment, or separation) within 10 years. You may have heard that half of all marriages end in divorce. That claim is based on the ratio of marriages to divorces in any given year, which is around 2:1. A 2012 estimate from PolitiFact put the probably of a marriage ending in divorce (however long the marriage lasts) at 40%-50%.

Divorce rates vary according to several factors including ethnicity, the importance of religion in the marriage, family histories of divorce, the timing of the birth of the first child, and the presence of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Education level also plays a significant role. A 2012 study revealed that having at least a bachelor’s degree can greatly increase the chances of your marriage lasting at least 20 years. Income can affect divorce rates, but only for men. That is to say, men who earn high incomes are less likely to get divorced than men who earn low incomes. A woman’s income has no observable affect on her likelihood of divorce, but it does affect her likelihood of getting married in the first place.