Shocking Facts Revealed about the History of Divorce

Throughout history, laws surrounding marriage and divorce have morphed dramatically. From the 1500s when divorce wasn't allowed (although in certain circumstances, like the inability to bear a child, an annulment through the church could be entertained) to nowadays where "divorce parties" have become almost as prevalent as engagement parties, the way society views divorce has changed as drastically as fashion.

The first U.S. divorce

Early laws required that a person seeking divorce prove fault. That is, they had to prove that their spouse did something so egregious that a divorce must be granted. Further, the spouse requesting the divorce had to have "clean hands," meaning they could not have done anything wrong during the marriage (such as abuse, adultery, or abandonment). If their hands weren't clean, the divorce would be thrown out, and the disenchanted couple would have to stay married.

The first U.S. divorce, according to history, occurred in Massachusetts in 1643. In these proceedings, it came out that the husband had two wives and two sets of children. This divorce was granted on the basis of bigamy.

Beginning in the twentieth century, divorce laws slowly became more liberal, culminating in divorce as we know it today. Here, we examine three of the most influential changes to divorce that shaped the way couples are now able to get a divorce.

Divorce ranches to meet residency requirements ASAP

In the early 1900s, several states began to revise their residency requirements, shortening the length of time a person must reside in a state in order to become a resident and get a divorce. This led to the informal installation of divorce mills: cities or states that people (most commonly women) fled to in order to quickly establish residency and divorce their spouses. Idaho and Arkansas became well-known divorce destinations, but perhaps the most prevalent city for divorce was Reno, Nevada.

At the turn of the century, Reno was one of the largest towns in Nevada (Las Vegas was not yet the desert oasis it is today), but it was still a quiet and relatively small ranching outpost. For years, the Nevada legislature toyed with the idea of shortening its residency requirements, toggling between a year of living continually in Nevada to establish residency, to six months, to three months. Finally, in 1931, the government shortened the length of time a person had to live in Nevada to establish residency to a mere six weeks. Add in liberal divorce laws (for the time), and Reno's divorce boom was quickly underway.

In the entrepreneurial spirit, local ranch and homeowners saw an opportunity to capitalize on this new divorce trend. They formed "divorce ranches," or places where divorce hopefuls could stay for the six weeks needed to establish residency in Nevada. The ranches catered to the disenfranchised bride (or groom) and provided community, activities, entertainment (both legal and non-legal), and, most importantly, the required witness needed to prove residency to the court. The cost was about $1,500 (approx. $15,000 in today's numbers). 

The ranches quickly became a mecca for housewives, socialites, and celebrities alike. Notable celebrities seen in Reno during the heyday of what became known as "The Reno Divorce" included Rita Hayworth, Norman Rockwell, General Douglas MacArthur, and Mary Rockefeller. Annual divorces in Reno jumped from roughly 1,000 per year in the 1920s to 19,000 per year by 1946.

The Reno Divorce

The popularity of The Reno Divorce was further amplified by Nevada's lack of policy or timeline for remarriage. This meant that a person who got divorced in Reno could marry their next spouse the same day they received their divorce decree instead of waiting a month to a year in other states. The surge in "divorce tourism" also provided a huge boost to Reno's economy, generating nearly $5 million in annual revenue ($50 million by today's standards).

The ranches offered not just a "way out" of marriage but an opportunity to skip scandal and stigma and start anew. Often, patrons would bring a "friend" or meet one there, starting new relationships or even tying the knot after the divorce was finalized.

Ultimately, as other states liberalized their divorce laws, The Reno Divorce began to phase out.

Why is Reno such an important part of divorce history?

It's important because it showed politicians and lawmakers the stark desires of the American people and, in particular, women: to be able to legally and quickly end their unhappy marriages and to move on, unencumbered, to the next chapters of their lives.

Not my fault! Enter no-fault divorce

Until the late 1960s, divorce laws always required the petitioning party to prove fault in order to have their divorce granted. A person could not divorce their spouse merely because they were unhappy in the relationship. Rather, they had to prove their spouse had done something wrong.

Reasons to grant a divorce included but were not limited to bigamy (in certain states), adultery, abandonment, extreme cruelty or abuse, and the inability to (ahem) perform in the bedroom. The result of these at-fault laws was that thousands upon thousands of couples were forced to stay in unhappy marriages on the basis that neither spouse had done anything egregiously wrong. Growing apart simply wasn't an option.

Ronald Reagan's no-fault divorce concept

Things began to change in 1969 when the governor of California, former president Ronald Reagan, officialized California's Family Law Act. The act permitted divorcing couples to split for no other reason than "irreconcilable differences." In other words, neither spouse had to prove the fault of the other to get divorced.

Other states quickly followed suit, and irreconcilable differences soon became the benchmark for divorce in the United States.

The shift to no-fault divorce resulted in a sharp rise in divorce rates throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Many couples who, until the 70s, had no options for ending a faultless marriage could now get divorced. The shift in divorce laws also corresponded to the shift in the way society viewed marriage in general. Marriage rates also fell as many couples opted for cohabitation over marriage.

A revolutionary change

The no-fault divorce ultimately revolutionized divorce for Americans. With an increase in divorces, many states formed courts to specifically deal with divorce and other family law matters. Increased efficiency moved divorce cases through the system relatively quickly and helped courts prioritize emergency matters. The stage was set for the next monumental change to the way we divorce.

Lawyer down: The DIY divorce

In the early 1990s, in what could arguably be one of the most influential moments in human history, the internet went public and became available to everyday Americans across the country. As the internet grew, so did the information available, including information about divorce and the divorce process.

Armed with information at their fingertips, people began searching for ways to take charge of their legal matters without hiring an attorney. Seeing an opportunity, in 2001 LegalZoom became one of the first online platforms to offer online legal help by providing users with legal forms. 

As the speed of technology and information sharing grew, so did the demand for a simpler, more affordable way to get divorced. By about 2010, the average cost for a divorce using attorneys was nearly $15,000. Once divorce courts began providing more access to forms and information online, the door was opened for the next big thing in divorce: the online do-it-yourself divorce.

Read: Why Is Hello Divorce Better than Other Online Divorce Services?

Hello Divorce offers DIY divorce and more

While not the first legal tech company to offer consumers divorce forms, Hello Divorce became one of the first to provide a platform where potential divorcees could "DIY" their divorce from start to finish with the help of a divorce expert to guide them through the process.

Much like TurboTax for divorce, Hello Divorce offered a new solution to empower individuals to take charge of their divorce without needing to spend an exorbitant amount on attorney fees. Hello Divorce began in California and has since expanded to Texas, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Utah, Washington, and New York. Our plan is to continue expanding so our services are available nationwide.

Want to learn more about our affordable online divorce plans? Click here.

As demand for affordable and convenient legal services continues to grow, so will the popularity of "DIY Divorce" and legal tech platforms like Hello Divorce. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has shown the potential for courts to hold many proceedings remotely and to handle most of the divorce paperwork online. Perhaps the temporary changes caused by coronavirus could even indicate a more permanent change to the way courts handle divorces in the years to come.

The last hundred years may have shown more ingenuity than any other century prior, although that's really not saying a whole lot. From the invention of the automobile to the first human landing on the moon to the widespread availability of the internet, technology and innovation seeped into every aspect of our lives. And, while the legal system is known for being slow to "get with the times," the last one hundred years offered some of the biggest and most influential changes to the way Americans divorce. And yet, it's still stigmatized and generally resolved via family court litigation. We can only hope that the next one hundred years will bring a more humane, less complicated divorce.


Co-Founder & President
Divorce Preparation, Divorce Process, Divorce Guidelines, Legal Insights

Heather is Hello Divorce's co-founder, President and Chief Content Officer, and our resident expert on divorce rules, procedures and guidelines across the states. Heather uses her content background, deep legal knowledge, and coding skills to author most of our state-specific divorce software. Heather joined Hello Divorce two months into a planned year-long vacation from the start-up world because she was convinced that the legal world is one of the only things left that truly needed disruption. Since her expertise (obsession) is making complex, frustrating processes easier – and even enjoyable – for consumers, Heather leads the product, customer service, marketing, and content teams at Hello Divorce.

Heather has a Master's in Journalism from Northwestern University and a BA from the University of Notre Dame. Heather lives in California with her husband, two kids, and too many pets. You can often find her answering Hello Divorce's free info calls on weekends, and in her free time, she dabbles in ukulele, piano, and electric bass.