What Is Considered Grounds for Divorce? Staff Profile Picture
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Many folks go through divorces in the United States; you’re not alone if you are considering filing for divorce. Generally, couples do not have to prove any specific grounds for divorce. In states where at-fault divorces exist legally, establishing grounds for divorce may help one of the people in the couple continue their lives and provide them with much-needed resources after the dissolution of marriage. In these cases, your divorce attorney may be able to use one of the following reasons to argue an at-fault divorce in your case.

Grounds for At-Fault Divorces

At-fault divorces refer to the legal dissolution of a marriage where one spouse is deemed responsible for the relationship breakdown. Grounds for at-fault divorces vary depending on the jurisdiction but commonly include adultery, cruelty, abandonment, imprisonment, or substance abuse. Examples include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's divorce in 2016 and Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's divorce in 2017. Such cases often involve allegations of infidelity/adultery, abuse, or other misconduct.


Adultery refers to a spouse engaging in sexual relations outside the marriage without the consent or knowledge of the other spouse. It involves a breach of trust and fidelity, which can lead to the breakdown of the marital relationship. Adultery is often cited as grounds for at-fault divorce when one spouse's infidelity is deemed the primary cause of marital dissolution. In 2009, professional golfer Tiger Woods' extramarital affairs came to light, leading to the breakdown of his marriage to Elin Nordegren. Reports of multiple infidelities surfaced, which ultimately led to their divorce.


Cruelty as a ground for at-fault divorce typically refers to physical or emotional abuse inflicted by one spouse upon the other. It involves behavior that causes physical or mental harm, making it unsafe or intolerable for the victimized spouse to continue the marriage. Cruelty can range from physical violence and verbal abuse to emotional manipulation or neglect. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had a highly publicized and tumultuous relationship. They were married twice, and their second marriage ended in divorce in 1976. The grounds cited included cruelty and irreconcilable differences, reflecting their challenges and conflicts during their relationship.

Irreconcilable Differences

Irreconcilable differences is a broad term used to describe a situation where spouses have significant conflicts or disagreements that cannot be resolved or reconciled, leading to an irreparable breakdown of the marriage. It signifies an inability to find common ground or sustain a functional relationship despite efforts to resolve the differences through communication or therapy. This is a requirement for divorce in most states, even those who do not require a finding of fault.


An example of an at-fault divorce based on abandonment is the case of Mary and John (fictitious names). John left Mary without any communication or support for an extended period, demonstrating willful desertion and neglect of marital duties, which can be grounds for divorce based on abandonment.


In cases where one spouse is imprisoned for a significant duration, it can be grounds for an at-fault divorce. An example could be Sarah and Michael (fictitious names). If Michael is sentenced to long-term imprisonment, Sarah may seek a divorce based on the grounds of imprisonment, indicating the inability to maintain a functional marital relationship due to the incarceration.

Substance abuse

Substance abuse can be a contributing factor to an at-fault divorce. For instance, if a spouse's persistent drug addiction or alcohol abuse negatively impacts the marriage, it can be cited as grounds for divorce. Actual examples of celebrity divorces involving substance abuse are less prevalent due to the private nature of such issues, but there have been cases where substance abuse played a role in divorces.

It's important to note that specific examples of real-life divorces based on abandonment, imprisonment, or substance abuse may not be readily available or publicly documented, as these cases often involve personal and sensitive information.

Defenses for At-Fault Divorces

In at-fault divorces, one spouse typically asserts that the other spouse is primarily responsible for the breakdown of the marriage, citing specific grounds such as adultery, cruelty, abandonment, or substance abuse. However, the accused spouse has the opportunity to raise defenses to challenge these grounds alleged by the other spouse. Some of these may include:

Denial of Allegations 

The accused spouse can deny the allegations made against them, asserting that the claims of adultery, cruelty, abandonment, or substance abuse are false or unfounded. They may argue that the evidence presented is insufficient or that there has been a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of events. For example, in a divorce where one spouse accuses the other of adultery, the accused spouse may present evidence or witnesses to challenge the claims and assert that they have been falsely accused. They may argue that there is no proof of the alleged misconduct and that the accusations are baseless.


Condonation is a defense where the accused spouse claims that the other spouse forgave or accepted their misconduct, thereby nullifying the grounds for divorce. This defense suggests that the injured spouse has reconciled or continued the marital relationship with full knowledge of the alleged misconduct. In a case where one spouse alleges cruelty, the accused spouse may claim condonation as a defense. For instance, they might argue that the injured spouse continued to live with them and engage in normal marital relations after the alleged acts of cruelty, indicating forgiveness or acceptance of the behavior.


Recrimination is a defense that essentially argues that both spouses are at fault for the breakdown of the marriage. The accused spouse alleges that the other spouse has also engaged in similar misconduct or has contributed to the marital problems, which should prevent the attribution of fault solely to one party. If both spouses have engaged in misconduct, such as adultery or substance abuse, the accused spouse can assert recrimination as a defense. They may argue that the other spouse's actions contributed to the breakdown of the marriage and that assigning fault solely to one party would be unfair.


Collusion occurs when both spouses conspire to fabricate or exaggerate grounds for divorce. Accused spouses can assert collusion as a defense, claiming that the allegations are false and have been manufactured by both parties to facilitate the divorce process. In cases where both spouses seek a divorce based on fault grounds, the accused spouse may claim collusion as a defense. They might argue that the allegations and evidence presented are a result of a mutual agreement to fabricate or exaggerate the grounds for divorce rather than reflecting genuine misconduct.

Grounds for No-Fault Divorces

No-fault divorces are based on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage without attributing blame to either spouse.

Irreconcilable Differences

Irreconcilable differences refer to significant conflicts or disagreements between spouses that cannot be resolved, making it impossible to continue the marriage. This ground acknowledges that the marriage has broken down irretrievably due to the inability to reconcile differences. For example, Sarah and John have been married for several years, but they are constantly arguing and unable to find common ground on major issues such as finances and parenting. Despite attempts at counseling, their conflicts persist, causing significant emotional distress and a breakdown in communication.

Irretrievable Breakdown

Irretrievable breakdown signifies that the marriage has reached a point where it cannot be salvaged or restored. It recognizes that the relationship has deteriorated to an extent where continued attempts at reconciliation would be futile. For example, Emma and David have been growing apart over the years, with diminishing emotional connection and shared interests. They have reached a point where they no longer feel they can salvage the marriage, and their attempts to reconcile have proven unsuccessful. The relationship has deteriorated to a level where continuing the marriage would be futile.

Mutual Consent 

In some jurisdictions, a ground for no-fault divorce is mutual consent. This means that both spouses agree to end the marriage and jointly file for divorce without the need to prove fault or specific reasons. The focus is on the mutual agreement to dissolve the marriage. For example, Jennifer and Michael have realized that they no longer want to be married. They have had honest discussions about their feelings, the state of their relationship, and their desire for a divorce. Both parties agree to end the marriage and decide to file for a no-fault divorce based on mutual consent.


Another common ground for no-fault divorce is a period of separation. In this case, the spouses must live separately for a specified period of time, typically with the intention of permanent separation. The length of separation required varies depending on the jurisdiction. For example, Lionel and Mark have been living separately for a year, each in their own residences. They have made a conscious decision to lead separate lives and have no intention of reconciling. Their period of separation meets the legal requirement in their jurisdiction to file for a no-fault divorce based on separation.

Irreparable Breakdown of the Marriage 

Some jurisdictions allow for a no-fault divorce based on the general ground of irreparable breakdown of the marriage. It recognizes that the marriage has reached a point where there is no reasonable likelihood of reconciliation or restoration. For example, Alexa and Nicole have reached a stage in their marriage where they no longer have emotional or physical intimacy. They have tried therapy and counseling, but their efforts have not been successful in restoring the relationship. Both spouses believe that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, with no reasonable likelihood of reconciliation.

Do I Need a Divorce Attorney?

Whether or not you need a divorce attorney depends on various factors, including the complexity of your divorce, the presence of significant assets, and the level of conflict between you and your spouse. While it is possible to navigate a divorce without an attorney, it is generally advisable to seek legal representation, especially if your case involves complex financial matters, child custody disputes, or a significant power imbalance between you and your spouse.

Hiring a divorce attorney can provide several benefits. They have specialized knowledge and experience in family law, understand the legal processes and requirements, and can guide you through the complexities of divorce proceedings. They can provide objective advice, protect your rights and interests, negotiate on your behalf, and help ensure a fair settlement or outcome.

When considering hiring an attorney for your divorce, you can expect the following:


An initial consultation where you can discuss your situation, concerns, and goals with the attorney. This allows you to evaluate their expertise, communication style, and determine if they are the right fit for your needs.

Legal Guidance

Your attorney will explain the relevant laws, legal processes, and potential outcomes related to your divorce. They will provide guidance on the best course of action based on your circumstances.

Documentation and Paperwork

Your attorney will assist in preparing and filing the necessary documentation for your divorce, ensuring that all required forms and paperwork are completed accurately and submitted within the specified deadlines.

Negotiation and Representation

If your divorce involves negotiation or settlement discussions, your attorney will represent your interests, advocate for you, and work towards achieving a favorable resolution. If the case goes to court, they will present your case and protect your rights during litigation.

Legal Strategy and Support 

Your attorney will develop a legal strategy tailored to your goals and circumstances. They will provide ongoing support, answer your questions, and address any concerns throughout the divorce process.

If you're considering hiring a divorce attorney, search for reputable and experienced attorneys in your area using directories such as Our directory provides comprehensive listings of top divorce attorneys based on various criteria, including expertise, reputation, and client reviews.

It's essential to research and select an attorney who specializes in family law, has a solid track record, and has good communication skills to ensure effective representation and support during your divorce.

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John E. Roach is a child custody and divorce attorney practicing in Minnesota. Visit: