What are the grounds for divorce in the United States

What are the grounds for divorce in the United States
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Veronica Baxter
Veronica Baxter
Legal Assistant
Greater Philadelphia area

While the grounds, or legal reasons, for divorce vary from state to state, this article will explain common grounds for divorce and the difference between no-fault and at-fault grounds for divorce from the office of a noted divorce mediation attorney in Philadelphia.

At-Fault Divorce vs. No-Fault Divorce

As the names imply, there are grounds for divorce that involve the fault of one party ending the marriage, as well as those that involve no fault on either parties’ part. Some states offer both legal types of grounds for divorce; others, only no-fault divorce.

Divorce courts do not usually consider whether one spouse was at fault for ending the marriage when determining things like division of marital property and child support. However, fault may be a factor when it affects the marriage’s economic situation, as when one spouse is addicted to gambling and gambles away marital property.

Also, if the party at fault is the spousal support obligor, their misconduct may affect the amount of alimony the court awards.

Common Grounds for Divorce in the US


Separation is a no-fault reason for divorce recognized in many states. State law will provide a period of time the couple must have been separated or living in separate primary residences, such as six months, a year, or two years. The parties must agree to divorce and will each submit a sworn affidavit to that effect and include it in their divorce complaint.

Irreconcilable Differences

This is another no-fault reason for divorce commonly provided under state law, which may use similar language such as the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Again, the parties must agree to divorce, and state law will provide the language describing the circumstances to which the parties must attest and assert in their divorce complaint.


Adultery may be the most common at-fault reason for divorce. It requires the plaintiff to prove that their spouse committed adultery, and those elements vary state-to-state. For example, Pennsylvania defines adultery as voluntary sexual intercourse with a person besides your spouse.

Proof of adultery may affect alimony, and in some states, an unfaithful spouse is not eligible to receive alimony at all regardless of relative income. To allege adultery, the plaintiff spouse must have “clean hands” – meaning, they are not adulterers themselves.


If one spouse has been totally absent from the marital household for a prescribed period of time, the remaining spouse may file divorce alleging desertion. In cases where the deserting spouse cannot be found, a divorce may be granted in absentia.

Some states use the term “presumption of death” when there has been a period of desertion, and the deserting spouse cannot be found.

Cruelty or Humiliation

Most states have statutes providing that a spouse that is either verbally or physically humiliated or treated cruelly may file for divorce on that basis. Acts of domestic violence fall under this category, but cruel or humiliating acts do not necessarily have to rise to that extreme.

The elements the victim must prove vary widely state-to-state, but in New Jersey, for example, the act or acts must endanger the life or the health of the victim.

Institutionalization for Mental Illness

Like desertion, the institutionalization must be for a specified period of time. Many states provide the grounds of “insanity,” implying an involuntary permanent commitment to an institution. This reason for divorce is often combined with a count of cruelty.


If one spouse is imprisoned due to a crime involving the other spouse or any other crime, the other may file for divorce on that basis. The grounds of cruelty/domestic violence are often also used by the victim in filing for divorce.

Addiction to a Narcotic Drug or Alcohol

In most states, the habitual drunkenness or drug-induced altered state of one spouse allows the other to file divorce for that reason. These grounds are often combined with the grounds of Cruelty and of Institutionalization or Insanity when the victim files for divorce.

Deviant Sexual Conduct

Deviant sexual conduct is conduct of a sexual nature that the victim did not consent to. It is not often defined under state law and may be lumped under Cruelty or domestic violence grounds.

An experienced divorce attorney in your state will be able to explain the various grounds for divorce that are available to you, and help you determine which legal basis for divorce offers the best solution for you.

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About Veronica Baxter

Veronica Baxter is a legal assistant operating out of the greater Philadelphia area. She frequently works with the Schwartz Law Firm, leeaschwartz.com, a team of dedicated divorce and family law attorneys based in Philadelphia.

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