Grounds for Divorce in Rhode Island

Learn about the grounds for divorce in Rhode Island.

By , Retired Judge

Fault-based and No-fault Grounds in Rhode Island

Like most other states, Rhode Island has two categories of grounds for divorce: fault-based, in which one spouse alleges the other spouse is guilty of misconduct or some other shortcoming, and no-fault, where neither spouse claims the other did anything wrong.

Fault-Based Grounds for Divorce

The following are the fault-based grounds for divorce in Rhode Island (minus some of the legalese):

  • impotency
  • adultery
  • extreme cruelty
  • willful desertion for five years by either spouse, or for a shorter period if the court decides it would be appropriate
  • continued drunkenness
  • habitual and excessive use of opium, morphine, or chloral
  • the husband's neglect and refusal to provide necessary support for the wife, for at least one year immediately before the filing of the divorce petition, if the husband had sufficient ability to provide such support, and
  • any other gross misbehavior and wickedness, on the part of either spouse, which offends or violates the marriage contract.

You should be aware that the ground of extreme cruelty doesn't require physical violence to be valid. A willful course of conduct that impairs the other spouse's health is sufficient.

Regarding desertion, the spouse seeking to use this as a basis for the divorce can not have consented to the other spouse's leaving. Also, there has to be no justification for a spouse abandoning the martial home. So if a spouse left to escape domestic violence, for example, that wouldn't be considered desertion.

The provision about gross misbehavior and wickedness is somewhat abstract. But the Rhode Island courts have interpreted it as meaning conduct that is similar in nature to extreme cruelty or adultery.

No-Fault Grounds for Divorce

If a court finds that the spouses have been living separate and apart for at least three years (voluntarily or involuntarily), it can render a decision to that effect. If neither of the spouses appeals that decision (usually within 20 days), then that separation can serve as the basis for issuing a divorce judgment. This is considered a no-fault ground because the separation in and of itself is enough to base the divorce on. There doesn't have to be a claim that either spouse was guilty of wrongdoing.

The other no-fault ground in Rhode Island is "irreconcilable differences." In plain English, this means that the marriage is broken, and there's no reasonable chance the spouses are going to be able to reconcile. This scenario serves as the basis for no-fault divorce in many other states as well.

Which Way to Go: Fault-Based or No-Fault?

Most people filing for divorce these days opt to proceed on no-fault grounds. The two primary reasons for this are that it's typically less stressful, and it tends to be more cost-efficient.

Filing on fault-based grounds usually means you'll be spending time fighting about who did what to whom. This is on top of the already difficult task of attempting to hash out your differences on issues like custody and parenting time (visitation), child support, spousal support (alimony), and dividing your property. Dealing with fault during the divorce ratchets up the tension and anxiety for all concerned, including children. And the time you expend on it generally translates into higher attorneys' fees you'll have to pay.

The prevailing philosophy in divorce law today is that a judge should do everything possible to ensure that the outcome is fair and equitable to both spouses. That's why a spouse's misconduct isn't usually a consideration when a judge is deciding a case. So unless your spouse has engaged in really egregious behavior, there's probably not a huge benefit to using a fault-based ground for divorce.

That said, Rhode Island law does permit a judge to look at a spouse's conduct during the marriage in determining alimony and property distribution. But note that this is only one of many criteria a judge will consider when making a decision. Your lawyer should be able to tell you whether your spouse's behavior is likely to result in your receiving more alimony or property than you would if you filed on no-fault grounds. If there's no advantage in alleging fault, then proceeding on no-fault grounds is normally your best bet.

Rhode Island Residency Requirements

In order to file for divorce in Rhode Island, you have to meet its residency requirements. There are two ways to satisfy the requirements: the spouse who wants to file for divorce (the plaintiff) has to reside in the state for the one year immediately prior to the filing; or, the other spouse (the defendant) has to reside in the state for that one year period, and the plaintiff has to legally serve the divorce papers on the defendant.

Divorce can be quite complicated. If you have specific questions, you should contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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