Rhode Island Divorce Laws Staff Profile Picture
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Rhode Island does have its fair share of divorces, even though it is not as big as some other states. In 2020, the state had 1.9 divorces per 1,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, this increased to 2.7 divorces per 1,000 people the next year, which is about the same as larger states like Oregon, Ohio, and Arizona. The marriage rate in Rhode Island increased from 4.5 per 1,000 people in 2020 to 5.8 in 2021, indicating that while there were more marriages, divorces also increased as a result.

A marriage’s dissolution can happen for both legal and personal reasons, and couples frequently do not know what to expect when a divorce happens. The processes and guidelines can be overwhelming, especially in cases where couples cannot resolve their disputes. To assist Rhode Island couples in understanding the divorce process, this article will provide a basic overview of the rules, factors, and requirements they may encounter if they decide to file for the dissolution of their marriage.

Divorce vs. Annulment vs. Legal Separation in Rhode Island

Divorce, annulment, and legal separation in Rhode Island follow different statutory guidelines and can result in a variety of outcomes, even if they may sound similar to those who are unfamiliar with what they entail. Divorce is the legal end of a marriage, and to file for divorce, a person must meet the state's residency requirements and explain the grounds for the complaint.

An annulment, on the other hand, results in a marriage being both dissolved and declared invalid, removing it from all records and making it appear as if it never occurred. A couple in Rhode Island can seek an annulment if they believe their marriage should not have been permitted in the first place, though the state can also annul marriages that it considers illegal. These include:

  • Bigamy: a marriage where one of the spouses is still legally married to another person.

  • Bigamous marriage void: a marriage between people who are mentally incompetent.

  • Marrying kindred is forbidden: a marriage where both parties are engaging in an incestuous relationship, though the state grants exceptions to Jewish marriages that are allowed by the religion.

  • A marriage where one or both parties are forced to marry through fraud, coercion, or duress.

  • A marriage where one or both parties do not have the capacity to consent to or understand the marriage due to their age or mental disability.

Lastly, legal separation refers to a married couple’s choice to go their separate ways without necessarily ending their marriage. Oftentimes, spouses choose this option if they wish to see whether they can still reconcile in the future or for moral or religious reasons. Some also choose to remain married but live apart to maintain any health insurance and tax benefits they have as a legally married couple.

In Rhode Island, legal separation is granted and enforced through a separation order after a couple files for it. In most cases, such an order prohibits both parties from selling, concealing, disposing of, and transferring any marital assets or property they own individually or together. It can also cover any decisions related to child support and custody, as well as alimony and other potential awards. However, a couple may enter into a separation agreement on their own or with the assistance of a mediator.

Is Rhode Island a No-Fault State When It Comes to Divorce?

Rhode Island allows couples to get divorced on both fault-based and no-fault grounds. A spouse can file for a no-fault divorce if there is an “irremediable breakdown” of their marriage due to irreconcilable differences. Simply put, the couple’s marriage has deteriorated to the point where it can no longer be salvaged. A no-fault divorce can also be granted if both spouses have lived apart for a minimum of three years, voluntarily or otherwise.

Meanwhile, a fault-based divorce in Rhode Island can be granted if the conduct or actions of a person’s spouse fall under any of the following grounds:

  • Their spouse has committed adultery.

  • Their spouse is impotent.

  • Their spouse committed acts of extreme cruelty.

  • Their spouse engages in habitual drunkenness.

  • Their spouse is a habitual, excessive, and intemperate user of opium, chloral, or morphine.

  • Their spouse willfully deserted them for at least five years or any shorter period of time at the court’s discretion.

  • Their spouse neglected or refused to provide for their necessities for at least one year in spite of their sufficient ability to do so.

  • Their spouse committed any other acts showing wickedness or gross misbehavior that violated their marriage contract.

In a no-fault divorce, both people usually agree that the marriage ended because of something neither of them did. Because of this, the divorce is likely to go smoothly. For those who file for divorce under fault-based rules, they must show that their spouse did any of the things listed above that caused the breakdown of their marriage. This can be done with any relevant evidence and eyewitness accounts. 

How to File for Divorce in Rhode Island

Before a person in Rhode Island can file for divorce, they must prove the grounds for the complaint and meet the state’s residency requirements. If the petitioner is from Rhode Island, they must prove that they have been a resident of the state for a minimum of one year prior to filing their divorce complaint. If they are not from the state, but their spouse is, the latter must be a resident of the state for the same minimum amount of time. In addition, a petitioner who lives outside of Rhode Island must personally serve the divorce paperwork to their spouse.

The person who files for divorce will be considered the plaintiff in the case, while their spouse is the defendant. It should be noted, however, that these terms do not necessarily have any impact on the case, unlike in other civil actions.

Filing the Divorce Complaint

Divorce complaints are filed in the family court of the county where the petitioner lives. Alternatively, if the person does not live in Rhode Island, they can file the complaint in Providence County or the county where their spouse resides. The family court clerk’s office or the Domestic Relations Division of the Superior Court has most of the forms that a petitioner will need, while some can be obtained from the Rhode Island Judiciary’s website. A person can ask the local family court clerk for any documents that they need to submit.

The paperwork needed in a divorce complaint typically includes the following:

  • A DR-6 form, which is a financial statement that discloses the petitioner’s total income, assets, debts, and acquisitions.

  • Two statements that list the couple’s children.

  • A copy of the couple’s marriage certificate.

  • A family services counseling report form. 

Serving the Spouse With the Divorce Papers

Once the petitioner has filed their divorce complaint and the required documents, they must notify their spouse of the complaint by serving the divorce paperwork. This can be done by having the local sheriff deliver the papers for a fee ranging from $30 to $50 or by hiring a private process server. However, as mentioned above, a petitioner who lives outside of Rhode Island must serve their spouse the papers in person. Either way, the petitioner must then file the completed summons with the family court clerk to prove that their spouse has been served with the papers.

If the petitioner's spouse lives outside of the state, they can serve them through a certified return-receipt-requested mail service. In addition, if the petitioner does not know their spouse’s address or residence and has failed to identify it through reasonable effort for at least six months, they can ask the court for permission to notify their spouse through a publication in a newspaper.

A spouse's response to a divorce summons has a 20-day deadline. They must acknowledge receipt of the petitioner's complaint and respond, stating whether they agree or disagree with it. This will determine whether or not the divorce will be uncontested. If they do not respond within the time frame specified, it means they have defaulted. 

Finalizing the Divorce

As soon as the petitioner's spouse responds and both sides agree on child support, custody, and property distribution, the court will set a date for a hearing. After each side makes their case, they will agree on the terms of the divorce. A witness will then confirm that the marriage has ended irreparably or that the couple has been living apart for the required three years.

A nominal hearing also applies if the spouse defaults on their response. However, two witnesses are required in such a scenario, with one confirming the petitioner’s residency.

After attending the nominal hearing, both parties must submit the final documents required by the court before the divorce is made official. These typically include the Decision Pending Entry of Final Judgment and the Final Judgment Forms. The former must be filed within 30 days from the date of the court’s decision, while the latter cannot be filed until three months after this date.

On the other hand, if the couple cannot agree on the divorce terms or a spouse contests the complaint after being served, both parties will be required to attend a case management conference where their legal teams will present the unresolved issues to the court. If the spouses still cannot agree with the divorce terms, they will attend a pretrial conference. If this still does not resolve their disputes, the case will proceed to trial, and the divorce will only be finalized after the judge renders a decision based on the evidence and arguments presented by both parties.

How Property Is Divided in a Rhode Island Divorce

Under Rhode Island law, marital property is divided based on the rule of equitable distribution in a divorce. This means that both parties will be receiving their share of the property based on their contributions throughout the course of the marriage, their long-term needs after the divorce, and the appreciation in the value of their property. Other applicable factors include the length of the marriage, each spouse’s age and sources of income, and their custody of their children, if any.

Couples should know that even if there is no fault in the divorce, the court will still divide the property based on any mistakes made by either party during the marriage. Based on the court's decision, it is likely that the spouse who did something wrong will end up getting a smaller share of the property.

Rhode Island Divorce FAQs

Legal Resources for Getting a Divorce in Rhode Island

Rhode Island Bar Association

The Rhode Island Bar Association provides state residents with access to various public services and informative sources that they can use in case they have legal concerns. The organization has an Online Lawyer Referral Service that can connect people to local lawyers based on their respective cases and locations. Its website can also direct visitors to community resources from other platforms that cover different topics, including family, women, and youth-related matters. Additionally, the organization has short articles that discuss common areas of the law, such as divorce and adoption.

Rhode Island Legal Services

Rhode Island Legal Services and its team offer aid to eligible low-income residents and victims of domestic violence in various legal matters at no cost. It has a number of programs that help individuals and families alike navigate courtroom proceedings and address sensitive issues related to domestic abuse and neglect, as well as the termination of parental rights. In addition, it offers access to resources that discuss various areas, ranging from local statutes and regulations to family law matters like divorce and child support.

Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence is a legal organization that focuses on providing firsthand assistance to those who have suffered any type of abuse from their spouses. Its team helps victims and their children find aid in terms of shelter, counseling, and long-term support by connecting them to other centers and groups that can provide the help they require. It also offers access to legal resources that cover topics relevant to their cases, such as divorce, child custody, and restraining orders.

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