The Effective Dates of No‐Fault Divorce Laws in the 50 States*

AuthorDenese Ashbaugh Vlosky,Pamela A. Monroe
Published date01 October 2002
Date01 October 2002
2002, Vol. 51, No. 4 317
Special Collection
The Effective Dates of No-Fault Divorce Laws in the 50 States*
Denese Ashbaugh Vlosky and Pamela A. Monroe**
We use prior research and state legislative histories to develop a set of decision rules for determining the dates for adoption of no-
fault divorce laws in the 50 states. Social scientists have attempted to gauge the impact of no-fault divorce laws on the stability of the
family and on the rate of divorce, but the adoption dates used by these researchers varied widely. Such divergences yield conf‌licting
f‌indings on issues related to the impact of no-fault divorce laws on family outcomes. We examine in detail the varying methods used
in prior studies for determining no-fault dates, then suggest a method for resolving the conf‌licts. Precision in and standardization of
the dates of no-fault divorce laws used in this body of research will minimize measurement error and improve conf‌idence in the
We propose decision rules for determining the dates of
no-fault divorce laws in the 50 states and use the rules
to recommend a standard set of dates for adoption of
no-fault laws in each state. We argue that agreement among
scholars on the dates is important to improve reliability and com-
parability of studies investigating the impact of no-fault divorce
laws on American families and society in general and, specif‌i-
cally, on their impact on divorce rates in the 50 states sinceabout
the mid-1940s. To this end, we examine closely the early re-
search on the impact of no-fault divorce laws on divorce rates
in the 50 states, as well as recently published research. We de-
scribe in detail the varying methods used in these studies for
determining a no-fault divorce law date for each state and the
resulting discrepancies in the dates. We then present and use our
rules to determine a no-fault divorce law date for each state,
compare our dates to those selected by noted scholars, and re-
solve differences in conf‌licting dates. The result is a set of stan-
dardized no-fault divorce law dates for the 50 states.
During the last century all states changed the way that they
allowed their citizens to divorce. In the 1970s alone, a ‘‘divorce
law revolution’’ resulted in legislative amendments to or repeals
of divorce laws in 37 out of the 50 states. Often coexisting with
the old statutes, the new laws allow individuals to divorce under
a ‘‘no-fault’’ system rather than under the previously restrictive
and cumbersome fault-based system.
Generally, fault-based laws grant a divorce if one person is
found guilty or ‘‘at fault,’’ and the other spouse is found ‘‘in-
nocent.’’ Consent of the innocent party is required before a di-
vorce is allowed (Weitzman, 1985). Finding a party guiltyof one
of the available and vague statutory grounds for divorce, such
as adultery, abandonment, or a protracted separation period, of-
ten is diff‌icult and expensive (Wright & Stetson, 1978). Social
scientists criticized the fault-based system as contributing to the
protracted acrimony between former partners who continued to
be in contact through parenting their children. Off‌icers of the
court suspected that individuals who wished to divorce under
fault-based laws often did so through perjury and the falsif‌ication
*This article is a portion of a paper presented at the 1998 annual meetings of the
American Political Science Association in Boston, MA, coauthored with James C. Garand.
We appreciate Dr. Garand’s work on the larger research project from which this article is
drawn. Approved for publication by the Director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment
Station as manuscript 01–25–0645.
**School of Human Ecology, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Key Words: divorce, family, law, no-fault divorce.
(Family Relations, 2002, 51, 317–324)
of evidence to get around strict statutory hurdles (Marvell, 1989;
Rheinstein, 1971; Stanley & Berman, 1977).
No-fault divorce was conceived as a way to make divorce
less acrimonious and restrictive, rendering the legal environment
neutral and noncoercive. No-fault divorce laws do not require a
f‌inding of the innocence or guilt of either party. Claimants can
f‌ile for divorce generally on the basis of the ‘‘irretrievable break-
down’’ of the marriage or the ‘‘incompatibility’’ of the parties
without proving one spouse is at fault. Both individuals are po-
tentially responsible for the care of their children, physically and
monetarily, and spousal support and property can be awarded on
the basis of the f‌inancial resources of each party, rather than on
the basis of their guilt or innocence (Weitzman, 1985).
Some states eased their divorce laws through strategic
amendments to existing fault-based laws, without enacting an
explicit, no-fault statute. They did this by amending separation
grounds to decrease the period of separation required before a
divorce could be granted, in some cases to as little as 6 months.
We suggest that for states with conservative divorce laws or a
generally conservative populace, such a move was politically
more palatable than enacting an explicit no-fault divorce law. It
is possible also that these amendments were more expedient,
perhaps requiring less time and political capital to enact than
alternative statutory changes.
Early in this divorce law revolution—even before all states
amended their statutes—social scientists attempted to gauge the
impact of no-fault laws on the stability of the family and on the
rate of divorce. Many of these studies (e.g., Marvell, 1989; Na-
konezny, Shull, & Rodgers, 1995; Sepler, 1981; Stanley & Ber-
man, 1977; Stetson & Wright, 1975; Wright & Stetson, 1978)
use interrupted time series designs, with the adoption of no-fault
divorce law by the state as the intervention (i.e., independent
variable) hypothesized to have an impact upon state divorce
rates. ‘‘Adoption of no-fault divorce law’’ is always indicatedin
these studies by a date (i.e., the year of adoption, enactment, or
effective date). Clearly, precise indication of the intervention
(i.e., measurement of the key independent variable) is important
to minimize measurement error and to improve conf‌idence in the
results of such research. Unfortunately, in more than two decades
of research, no single, no-fault date for each of the 50 states has
emerged as def‌initive for the purposes of studying the effects of
the legal changes on the family. In some cases, the dates used
by researchers vary by 1–2 years (usually the difference in the
enactment date and the effective date), but for some states the
dates vary by as much as 6–26 years (for Nevada and Maryland,
The signif‌icance of consistent dates becomes more important
when we consider that research on the effects of no-fault laws
has, in fact, produced different f‌indings. Some studies show that

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