Generally, getting a divorce in the United States is not a difficult legal process. That said, it’s important to know there are different ways to file for one.
No fault divorces and at-fault divorces are the two legally defined divorce categories courts recognize. The former implies that neither spouse is responsible for the dissolution of the marriage, while the latter assigns fault to a spouse.
What is a no-fault divorce?
A no-fault divorce is a legal ground for marriage dissolution that allows couples to divorce without needing to prove wrongdoing on the part of a spouse. It’s a common type of divorce that’s based on “irreconcilable differences” or an “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.”1 This ultimately means the spouses involved were unable to get along or have various differences that caused the marriage to fall apart.
Because spouses don’t need to prove marital misconduct to the court, no-fault divorces tend to be a quicker, simpler, and cheaper option for couples filing for divorce.2 It’s also a more private way to file, since couples aren’t required to reveal personal or intimate details of their marriage to the court.
How to get a no-fault divorce
Once a spouse decides to request a petition, they would simply mark the no-fault option on their divorce petition. Only one spouse needs to file for a no-fault divorce. Even if the other spouse doesn’t agree with the divorce, they can’t prevent the court from granting it.1
Keep in mind that some states may require a physical period of separation before allowing spouses to file for a no-fault divorce. Periods of separation can be anywhere from a few months to a couple of years, depending on the state.2
No-fault divorce vs. at-fault divorce
Unlike a no-fault divorce, an at-fault divorce requires a spouse to give a reason for the divorce. The spouse filing for divorce would have to prove misconduct by their spouse that breached their marriage contract. Depending on the state, there are several acceptable grounds that a spouse could claim for an at-fault divorce. Some of the most common reasons include:
- Abuse or cruelty of all types
- Abandonment for a certain amount of time
- Prison confinement
- Mental incapacitation or illness
- Substance abuse
- Felony conviction
At-fault divorces can be filed immediately. Spouses aren’t required to live apart for a specific period of time like they might have to do for a no-fault divorce. And unlike a no-fault divorce, a spouse is allowed to object to an at-fault divorce. However, they would need to disprove the fault by presenting a defense to the court.2
No-fault divorce states and “fault states”
Every state in the U.S. allows some version of no-fault divorces. However, only 17 states are considered “true no-fault states,” because they only allow couples to file for divorce based on no-fault grounds. These 17 states include California, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Hawaii, Florida, and Colorado.3 In general, you cannot get an at-fault divorce in one of these 17 states but there may be exceptions.
While every state permits no fault-divorces, only 33 states recognize both no-fault and at-fault divorces. These states can be considered “fault states.”
Choosing a no-fault divorce or an at-fault divorce
If you live in a state that recognizes both no-fault and at-fault divorces, and you have the grounds to file for either one, you’ll need to choose which is best for your situation.
Some couples may opt for a no-fault divorce — even if there was wrongdoing in the marriage — because it’s usually a simpler and faster divorce process. But establishing fault can be beneficial in some circumstances, as it could result in a larger distribution of property or alimony to the spouse who wasn’t at fault.1 If you're torn between a no-fault and at-fault divorce, it’s a good idea to consult a divorce lawyer to better help you understand your options. If you have the option to enroll in legal insurance, you may be able to find a lawyer through the plan network.