Grounds for Divorce in California

Learn more about the Golden State's no-fault divorce process.

By , Attorney

California Is a No-Fault Divorce State

California refers to divorce as the dissolution of marriage, but the result is the same: termination of your marriage. Every state offers its residents some variation of no-fault divorce and California is no different. A no-fault divorce means that the court doesn't require either spouse to place blame on the other as the reason for the breakdown of the marriage. Instead, you only need to tell the court you're filing for divorce based on irreconcilable differences.

Grounds for Divorce

Some states allow a spouse to allege a reason for the breakdown of the marriage, such as adultery or abandonment, but California only requires a spouse to allege that your marriage is so damaged that neither of you can save your relationship. You won't have to go to court to testify about why your marriage didn't work, which can speed the divorce process and help both spouses move forward with the emotional process.

California is a pure "no-fault" divorce state, which means that the court can't factor in marital fault when deciding issues about property division, custody, or support. In one California case, a wife discovered that her husband was having an affair. Instead of filing for divorce, the couple decided to remain married but signed a marital settlement agreement they hoped would prevent a messy divorce in the future.

Most courts accept fair and reasonable agreements, but in this case, the couple's contract made it mandatory for a cheating spouse to pay the other a sum of $50,000 in addition to any other court-ordered support or property. Several years after signing, the husband once again cheated on his wife, and as a result, the wife filed for divorce and asked the court to enforce the agreement. The court ruled the document was unenforceable because it essentially permitted the court to look into a spouse's fault (adultery) to dissolve the marriage or award marital property, which the law prohibits.

The court divorced the couple, but it did not award the wife any property beyond what she was entitled to under California's community property laws.

Permanent Legal Incapacity

Legal incapacity or "incurable insanity" is another ground for divorce in California. The burden of proof is high, and this is not an easy way to obtain a divorce. To be successful, you will need to provide medical documentation or psychiatric testimony to the court demonstrating:

  • your spouse was incurably insane at the time you filed for divorce, and
  • medical professionals expect that your spouse will be incapacitated and unable to make decisions, for the foreseeable future.

Filing for divorce based on legal incapacity will increase the amount of time you spend in court and the overall cost of your divorce. No-fault divorce requires no proof and as a result, is a much faster process for divorce.

Dissolution of Marriage or Legal Separation?

California is unique in that it's one of a handful of states that allows you to file for a legal separation as an alternative to divorce. Both processes follow the same steps and allow a judge to divide community property and decide custody and support matters, but in the end, the couple remains married but lives apart. This process allows spouses to live separate lives, but continue to keep the many benefits of marriage, including:

  • medical and dental insurance
  • veteran's benefits, or
  • social security benefits.

This alternative may also be attractive for those whose religion prevents them from filing for divorce or couples who are concerned that a divorce would negatively impact their children. For this process to be successful, both parties must intend for the marriage to be over.

What Must I Prove Before Filing?

Like most states, California has a residency requirement that you must meet before you can file for divorce or legal separation. Couples must show that at least one spouse was a resident of the state for a minimum of six months and a resident of the county for a minimum of three months prior to filing for divorce. These requirements prevent spouses from shopping around for states or judges they believe will award a better property settlement or custody judgment.

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