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Divorce | Family

What Are the Grounds for a Divorce?

8 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

You may be surprised to learn that you must give the courts a valid basis – or “grounds” – to dissolve your marriage.

Your potential grounds for divorce vary depending on the state in which your divorce is filed, and whether you are filing for an at-fault or no-fault divorce.

Although the grounds for divorce vary from state to state, all jurisdictions accept that certain common situations lead to the termination of a marriage. By understanding the different grounds for divorce, individuals can make more informed decisions about the state of their relationships.

If you’re considering divorce, you need to consider the potential financial, emotional, and legal implications for the reason you claim. It’s a good idea to seek professional advice from a lawyer, to ensure that your case will go the way you want it to.

Different Reasons Between At-Fault and No-Fault Divorces

No-fault divorces are allowed in all states. In a no-fault divorce, neither spouse is held responsible for the marriage breakdown. The court will not look at which spouse was at fault or why the marriage ended, and no evidence of wrongdoing is needed. These are typically faster, less expensive, and more common than at-fault divorces.

There are several broad reasons, or grounds, you will likely see in a no-fault divorce – namely irreconcilable differences, incompatibility, or an irremediable breakdown of the marriage. Your spouse will ultimately be unable to prevent a no-fault divorce on their own because the court will view the objection as an obvious irreconcilable difference.

At-fault divorces require your case to meet strict criteria, including a more specific reason for divorce. These divorces are typically longer and more expensive to pursue.

Some people opt to file for an at-fault divorce because it exempts them from local requirements like a period of separation that must expire before a no-fault divorce can continue. Additionally, in some states, if a spouse proves that the divorce is the other spouse’s fault, they may be entitled to more favorable terms for property division, child support and alimony. If both spouses share fault, then a family court judge may grant a divorce to the spouse who is least at fault using a “comparative rectitude” model.

At-fault divorces are no longer recognized by all states. Furthermore, there is risk involved. A spouse can potentially stop or shift the burden of an at-fault divorce by convincing the court that they are not to blame.

Both no-fault and at-fault divorces can be a uncontested divorce, which addresses each spouse’s alignment on a separation agreement.

No-Fault Divorce Grounds

A no-fault divorce essentially means that neither spouse will have to prove that their breakup is the other spouse’s fault.

Irreconcilable Differences

When spouses file for a divorce citing irreconcilable differences, it can include many reasons such as:

  • Different political or religious views
  • Lack of balance between work and home
  • Lack of intimacy 
  • Failure to effectively communicate
  • Dislike of friends or relatives
  • Unequal responsibility for household chores

Judges may first encourage couples to address and resolve irreconcilable differences in marriage by meeting with a third-party divorce mediator. Mediation allows both parties to address their concerns in a private, non-adversarial setting.


Incompatibility can ruin any marriage. It can deflate relationships, cause resentment, and result in an unfulfilling partnership. No-fault divorces may list incompatibility as grounds for separation when one or both partners is unable to adapt, compromise, or feel supported.

Irremediable Breakdown of the Marriage

An irremediable breakdown of the marriage (sometimes called irretrievable breakdown) is a broad ground for divorce. Since it can encompass issues of incompatibility and irreconcilable differences, in many states this is the only grounds available for a no-fault divorce.

At-Fault Divorce Grounds

An at-fault divorce is typically more challenging to prove and requires proof that one spouse must have caused the breakdown of the marriage.

Some issues present at the start of a marriage, such as fraud, are a better fit for annulment instead of divorce.


If one spouse voluntarily leaves the other, physically or emotionally, that can be grounds for an at-fault divorce. To be considered abandonment, a spouse should have no intention of returning.

In many states, there is a specific amount of time (typically a year) that a spouse must be gone before abandonment is considered a viable option as grounds for divorce. The year may need to be continuous; if a spouse returns at any time during the year, it could restart the year-long waiting period.

In some states, abandonment is considered a form of marital misconduct that can affect the court’s decision in a divorce case.

Adultery (cheating)

Adultery refers to a married person having an intimate relationship with someone who is not their spouse.

This is not always easy to demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction. Proving allegations of cheating without clear evidence is possible, but can be easier with the help of a divorce lawyer.

In some states, adultery can be considered an act of marital misconduct, which can affect the court’s decision in a divorce case. This grounds can be used as a factor in determining child custody, alimony, and asset division.

In some states, an at-fault divorce can be filed even when the “cheating” occurred after a couple has physically separated and begun filing for divorce. So, it may be best to wait until the divorce is final before you begin dating again.

Cruelty (physical or mental abuse)

The blanket term used by many states for physical or mental abuse is “cruelty.” Cruelty can include the willful causing of pain and suffering to your spouse. A judge will require concrete evidence to uphold cruelty as grounds for divorce. 

Physical abuse is an act of violence, such as hitting, kicking, or physically harming another person. Mental abuse includes any kind of psychological or emotional abuse, such as manipulation, intimidation, or threats.

In most cases, cruelty must be persistent, willful, and cause unnecessary suffering. Trivial matters that can’t be substantiated are usually not sufficient reasons to successfully file for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. 

Criminal Conviction or Imprisonment

Most states allow spouses to file for an at-fault divorce if their partner has been charged with a serious crime. Generally, the crime must lead to significant jail time or a felony conviction to be a viable reason for filing an at-fault divorce. 

When one spouse is incarcerated, this in itself can be grounds for divorce. For a court to grant a divorce on the grounds of imprisonment, a spouse generally must have been sentenced to a correctional facility for at least one year.

Either spouse may be able to use these situations as evidence that the marriage is no longer viable. This is especially true if one spouse’s criminal activities have caused harm to the other spouse or their children.


When one spouse lies or omits important information in order to gain an advantage in the marriage, it can rise to the level of fraud that justifies an at-fault divorce. For example, if one spouse conceals information such as their true income or assets, this could be considered fraud.

In order to use fraud as a ground for divorce, a spouse must provide evidence. This could include documents or witnesses that can verify the falsehood. The court may consider the length of the marriage, the severity of the fraud, and the impact it has had on the marriage when deciding whether to grant a divorce.

Less Common Reasons for an At-Fault Divorce

A family court judge can grant a fault divorce for many reasons. A few less common grounds for an at-fault divorce include:

  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Cultural differences
  • Withholding sex
  • Infertility or impotence
  • Mental illness
  • Differences in sexual orientation
  • Financial irresponsibility
    • This refers to a spouse who does not pay their bills, abuses credit cards, or puts the family in debt. It can also refer to a spouse who is not contributing financially to the marriage, such as not paying their share of the household bills or not contributing to their retirement plan. Financial irresponsibility can also be considered a form of marital misconduct that can affect the court’s decision in a divorce case.

Defense Against At-Fault Divorce Grounds

In general, spouses do not use defenses very often since they can lead to an even longer divorce process; and generally still result in a divorce, albeit on more favorable terms. The courts will eventually grant most petitioning partues a divorce, as they do not want to force a person to stay married who does not want the marriage to continue.

Potential defenses against an at-fault divorce can include:

  • False statements
  • Provocation
  • Condonation
  • Connivance
  • Collusion 

Choosing What to Base Your Divorce Case On

If you are considering an at-fault divorce or your spouse has already filed for one, it is in your best interest to consult a family law lawyer as soon as possible.

Overall, it is important to understand the different grounds for divorce and to seek professional advice if you are considering a divorce. Divorce is a difficult process, and it is important to be aware of the potential outcomes and to have a support system in place. With the right guidance and support, couples can make the best decision for their future.

Divorce lawyers charge so much because they typically handle every aspect of your case when you hire them. Unbundled Legal Help offers full representation or the choice of an affordable divorce lawyer who will handle the more complex parts of your case, like grounds for divorce, while you take care of the rest. 

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