Spousal Abandonment and Divorce

Spousal abandonment is a form of misconduct in matrimonial law. One spouse moves out of the family home without justification, without the other partner’s consent, and without the intention of coming back. That partner also halts financial support.

Couples are typically accustomed to sharing responsibilities, income, and expenses. When one partner moves away, the other can struggle to stay afloat. In some cases, abandoned partners can use this trauma to inform their divorce settlements and get a bigger piece of the estate and its benefits. 

What is spousal abandonment?

Spousal abandonment, put simply, is when one spouse leaves the marriage with no intention of returning – but takes no formal legal action to end the marriage. Spousal abandonment can serve as a grounds for divorce in fault-based states.

What are the different types of abandonment?

Anytime one spouse moves away and breaks financial obligations, abandonment applies. But nuances exist, and understanding them could be key to winning your divorce case. 

Most courtrooms recognize two main types of abandonment: 

Criminal abandonment 

If a partner leaves the other without just cause, criminal abandonment could be at play. Courts typically look for evidence that the person abandoned the following:

  • Children: Parents aren't required to give their children everything they want, but they are legally responsible for a child's health and well-being until the child reaches 18 years old. If a spouse moves out and stops contributing to a child's upbringing, this could be criminal abandonment.
  • Sick spouses: About 1.9 million people are diagnosed with cancer in a typical year. Others struggle with difficult conditions like diabetes, arthritis, or heart disease. If one spouse moves out and leaves the other to deal with these issues alone, abandonment could apply. A sick spouse can’t support the entire household alone. 

Constructive abandonment

Marriages sometimes end due to misconduct, abuse, or deception. Moving out could be a reasonable response to a spouse’s poor decisions and the damage they might cause. 

For example, about 40% of couples living together have no idea how much the other makes. If one partner finds out the other hasn’t been contributing to the household expenses despite the ability to do so, moving out could seem reasonable. 

Similarly, if you’ve been living with an abusive spouse and need to move out to protect your health and safety, few judges would penalize you for that decision. Sending payments to your former spouse could reveal your location, so staying hidden could be wiser. 

How does marital abandonment impact divorce?

Judges in many states have significant leeway in making estate decisions. You're entitled to an impartial judge per the United States Constitution. But a judge could be persuaded to take your side – and give you more benefits – based on abandonment charges you levy. 

Spousal abandonment and your finances

When one spouse moves out, the other can be left with steep shared bills and debts. As the divorce drags on, this spouse could suffer significant harm, including a reduced credit rating. 

If you can prove your spouse left you without cause and you struggled in the aftermath, the judge could offer you a greater share of the estate or a larger spousal support payment. 

Spousal abandonment and child custody

Courts like to keep families together, as it's typically best for children to grow up connected to both parents. But when one spouse willfully leaves the children behind without supporting them, that person may not seem responsible enough to accept full custody rights. In some cases, a misbehaving spouse may also need supervision during child visits.

Spousal abandonment and your emotions

Breakups are never easy on anyone. But when a divorce stems from deception, abuse, or abandonment, your emotions can run high. 

Divorce settlements aren't meant to penalize bad behavior, but when you're feeling lost and upset with your former partner, it's hard to negotiate and settle. It's common for cases like this to go to court rather than settling out of court through mediation or negotiation. 

What to do if your spouse has abandoned you

If you think or know your spouse has abandoned the marriage, there are several steps you should take to protect your future.

  1.  Secure your finances. While your assets and debts are likely shared, you should monitor your spouse's activity on any joint accounts. You may need to remove access or divert your savings into a new account.
  2.  Seek legal advice. Each marriage is different, as are your state or even county laws related to your rights should your spouse abandon you. If you aren't sure what to do, have complicated finances, or children are involved, it's often best to get some legal advice.
  3.  Decide if you want to end the marriage legally. You have options, such as a legal separation or divorce.
  4.  Seek support. Don't try to navigate this difficult time alone. You may want to go to therapy, reach out to trusted friends, or make more time for self-care and other activities to help you move into your next chapter.

How to claim or prove spousal abandonment in court

Marital law starts with the states, each with slightly different rules. Some require couples to cite a reason for the divorce, and abandonment could be ample cause to request a split. But some allow no-fault divorces in which neither party has to be in the wrong for the process to proceed. 

Most states have free legal services that can answer common questions. Contact the courthouse in your county and ask about abandonment and what to do next in a divorce. 

It's typically quicker and easier to get an uncontested divorce. Experts say at least 90% of divorces are uncontested. Finding your partner and working together on your divorce is the easiest and least expensive way to move forward. It’s also the easiest on both parties emotionally.

Help and support for abandoned spouses

Break-ups are always hard, but being abandoned can leave you with all sorts of questions. Many abandoned spouses seek outside support and community. Here are a few of our favorite sources of support.

But if you have no idea where your spouse is, or you're afraid to reach out to someone who has abused you, ask a lawyer for help. Together, you can find a path forward.



Abandonment. Cornell Law School. 
Good Question: What Do Parents Legally Owe Their Kids? (March 2014). CBS Minnesota. 
Cancer Stat Facts: Common Cancer Sites. National Cancer Institute. 
Nearly 40% of Couples Who Live Together Don't Know How Much Their Partner Makes. Experts Say That's a Problem. (July 2021). CNBC.
Influencing and Challenging Judges and Their Decisions in Child Welfare Cases. (September 2019). American Bar Association. 
What Is an Uncontested Divorce? (July 2022). Forbes.

Head of Content
Communication, Relationships, Personal Growth, Mental Health
As Hello Divorce's Head of Content, Katie is dedicated to breaking down the stress and mess of divorce into clear, helpful content that delivers hope rather than fear. Katie most often writes about the emotional toll of divorce, self-care and mindfulness, and effective communication. Katie has 20+ years of experience in content development and management, specializing in compelling consumer-facing content that helps people live better lives. She has a Master's in Media Studies from the University of Wisconsin. Katie lives in Texas with her husband and two adorable cats, and you can find her hiking and bird watching in her free time.