Adultery in Rhode Island: Does Cheating Affect Alimony?

If you’re getting divorced in Rhode Island and you or your spouse has cheated, you’ll need to know how the adultery will affect the judge’s decisions about your case, including alimony, child custody, and child support.

By , Retired Judge

Adultery can cause a marriage to become an emotional nightmare, and it's a common cause of divorce in Rhode Island. When you're ending your marriage because one (or both) of you has cheated on the other, it's possible that the adultery will impact the outcome of your divorce, including any potential award of alimony. Every state's alimony laws are different; here's a breakdown of how the state of Rhode Island's alimony laws address adultery.

An Overview of Alimony in Rhode Island

Divorce can cause financial turmoil and reveal hard truths about each spouse's post-divorce financial prospects. Often, one spouse will be in a better position than the other, with, for example, a higher-paying job, a more promising career path, or access to more assets.

The courts attempt to balance these financial inequities by ordering the spouse who's more financially sound to pay alimony (also referred to as "maintenance" or "spousal support") to the other. The main goal of alimony is to ensure that both spouses can provide for their own needs after the divorce.

How Rhode Island Courts Determine Alimony

Under Rhode Island law, the goal of alimony is to ensure that spouses are supported during the (reasonable) post-divorce length of time that it takes for them to become financially independent and self-sufficient. (6 R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-16(c)(2) (2021).) Given this goal, Rhode Island courts usually award short-term alimony based on an estimate of how long it will take the spouse to obtain the training or education needed to be competitive in the current job market.

However, Rhode Island judges may award alimony for an indefinite period when they believe it's appropriate—often when there has been a lengthy marriage or when it's unlikely a spouse will be able to become self-sufficient, perhaps due to age or health issues.

In determining whether to award alimony and, if so, how much, there are certain factors Rhode Island judges must consider. They are:

  • the length of the marriage
  • the spouses' conduct during the marriage
  • the spouses' age and health, occupation, income amounts and sources, vocational skills, and employability
  • each spouse's liabilities and needs
  • a spouse's inability to self-support because of childcare responsibilities
  • whether a spouse passed over job or education opportunities to take care of the household or children
  • time needed by the supported spouse to get job training and find employment
  • the probability of a spouse becoming self-sufficient given that spouse's age and skills
  • the standard of living during the marriage
  • either spouse's opportunity to acquire assets and income in the future
  • the supporting spouse's ability to pay, and
  • any other factor the court believes is applicable.

(6 R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-16(b)(1) (2021).)

Rhode Island law also permits judges to award temporary alimony while the divorce is in progress, to help maintain the financial status quo until the divorce is finalized.

Is Rhode Island a No-Fault Divorce State?

Like every other state, Rhode Island provides for no-fault divorce, meaning spouses can divorce without having to demonstrate marital misconduct. In Rhode Island, the no-fault "ground" (reason) for divorce is that "irreconcilable differences" have caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage. (6 R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-3.1 (2021).) In other words, the couple can't get along—to a point where the marriage can't be salvaged.

Many spouses prefer no-fault divorce because it tends to lessen any hostility, and generally results in lower legal fees. It also facilitates the possibility of settling your issues and entering into a divorce settlement agreement, which can lead to a much quicker divorce.

Like some other states, Rhode Island still allows for fault-based divorce in addition to no-fault divorce. In a fault-based divorce, one spouse claims that the marriage is over due to the other's wrongdoing, such as physical or mental cruelty, desertion, continued drunkenness, habitual use of certain drugs, or adultery. (6 R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-2 (2021).)

Is Adultery a Crime in Rhode Island?

Most states have decriminalized infidelity. However, Rhode Island is an exception: Its laws make adultery a criminal offense that subjects the adulterer to a fine. (6 R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-6-2 (2021).)

What Role Does Adultery Play in a Rhode Island Divorce?

Rhode Island law specifically lists adultery as a ground for divorce. So a spouse's infidelity can be the basis for one spouse to file a fault-based divorce complaint. Because Rhode Island also recognizes no-fault divorce, though, a spouse is not required to demonstrate that the other has cheated to be able to get a divorce (the spouse can simply claim that the marriage is over due to "irreconcilable differences").

Does Adultery Impact Alimony in Rhode Island?

Adultery can play a role in the award of alimony in Rhode Island, including the duration and amount. Although the purpose of alimony in Rhode Island is to provide a spouse with the ability to become self-sufficient, Rhode Island judges do consider the spouses' conduct during the marriage when deciding whether alimony is appropriate.

On its face, that seems to be conflicting messaging to some degree—pitting the role of alimony as a normally short-term, practical tool against its use as a judicial hammer to punish the unfaithful spouse. But it's important to remember that spousal conduct is just one of many items on the list of factors to be considered, so how a judge chooses to weigh adultery when deciding alimony will depend on the circumstances of each case.

As an aside, Rhode Island law also allows a judge to take marital misconduct into consideration when determining the distribution of the couple's property in the divorce. (6 R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-16.1 (2021).)

Does Adultery Affect Custody or Child Support in Rhode Island?

In most Rhode Island divorce cases, the fact that a spouse has cheated doesn't affect custody or child support. However, it's important to remember that when it comes to custody matters, judges must prioritize the best interests of the children. And in Rhode Island, a parent's moral fitness is a factor judges will consider. (Pettinato v. Pettinato, 582 A.2d 909 (R.I. 1990).)

When a parent's adulterous behavior compromises a child's well-being, it could certainly affect a judge's custody decision. For example, when a parent leaves a young child unattended because that parent is off having an extra-marital affair, a judge would probably be less inclined to entrust the child's care to that parent.