divorce, partial or total dissolution of a marriage by the judgment of a court. Partial dissolution is a divorce “from bed and board,” a decree of judicial separation, leaving the parties officially married while forbidding cohabitation. Total dissolution of the bonds of a valid marriage is what is now generally meant by divorce. It is to be distinguished from a decree of nullity of marriage, or annulment, which is a judicial finding that there never was a valid marriage.
Although created by a contract between husband and wife, marriage is a legal relation of a particular nature with certain mutual rights and obligations, determined not by agreements but by the general law. In a sense, then, the state has an interest in every marriage. The parties cannot themselves officially terminate the marital relation by a contract of separation.
Jurisdiction over Divorce
In England, divorce was originally under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. These courts followed the canon law
rules. They could grant a divorce from bed and board and could pass on the original validity or nullity of the marriage, but could not grant a total divorce from the marriage bond. This power lay only in Parliament. In 1857, by act of Parliament, judicial courts succeeded to the jurisdiction over nullity and partial dissolution and were given the added power to grant total dissolution of the marriage. In the United States, where ecclesiastical courts were never established, the matrimonial law of England applied by these courts was never received as part of the common law. Consequently, suits for divorce can be brought under authority of statute only. The statutes usually confer upon equity courts jurisdiction over divorce. The power to legislate on divorce belongs to the states and not to the federal government, and each state has unique laws regarding divorce. The state of residence at the time of divorce, not the state in which a couple was married, determines what laws apply.
Grounds for Divorce
Until the recent advent of the “no-fault” divorce, in which neither party is expected to prove the spouse as the “guilty party” in the marriage, a marriage could be dissolved only for what the state deemed to be proper grounds. While “no-fault” divorces have become increasingly common in all U.S. states, there are still many cases where marital partners seek to establish fault, particularly in states that require a waiting period of legal separation before allowing a “no-fault” divorce. The most common grounds are adultery, desertion
, and physical or mental cruelty. Habitual drunkenness, incurable mental illness, conviction of a crime, nonsupport, or constructive abandonment are other grounds for establishing fault. Corrupt consent by a party to the conduct of the other party bars a divorce, as does collusion. Forgiveness of the offense, either express or implied (as by cohabitation), on condition that it not be repeated, is a bar to a divorce for that offense.
The Divorce Decree
A decree of divorce is valid only if the court rendering the decree has jurisdiction, and jurisdiction is in the main based on the domicile of the parties. An absolute divorce, as contrasted with a decree of nullity, takes effect from the date of the decree. By the divorce decree, the custody of the children is usually given at the discretion of the court to one of the parties, the welfare of the children being the principal consideration. In recent years, fathers in divorce proceedings have fought for equal custody rights, calling into question the long-standing tradition of favoring the mother in custody battles. New developments in divorce law allow joint custody of children, as well as visitation rights for grandparents and other relatives.
The wife may retain the husband's name, although in most states she may choose to resume her maiden name. Both parties are usually at liberty to remarry, although this rule is not invariable, and a time limit within which the parties may not remarry is sometimes imposed. In most jurisdictions, one spouse may be entitled to alimony payments from the other at the discretion of the court.
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