We can’t (positively) change the future of divorce without understanding its past. So we set out to learn more 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 Ex 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.
Until England enacted the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, there were very few, if any, governing laws or rules regarding the dissolution of marriage. Prior to 1857, couples could only become divorced in England by an “Act of Parliament,” and the instances of divorce throughout history leading up to 1857 were few and far between. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 gave women in England the ability to petition for divorce from their husbands, although women were held to a much higher burden of proof to show fault in the marriage than their male counterparts.
Across the pond, divorce in the United States was no easier. Early laws required that a person seeking divorce prove fault – that is, that their spouse did something so egregious that a divorce must be granted. The kicker? The spouse requesting the divorce must have “clean hands,” meaning they could not have done anything wrong during the marriage (such as abuse, adultery, or abandonment), or the divorce would be thrown out and the disenchanted couple would have to remain married.
Beginning in the 20th century, divorce laws slowly became more liberal, culminating in divorce as we know it today. Here we will examine three of the most influential changes to divorce that shaped the way couples are now able to get divorce:
Hey! Let’s go to Reno!
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 subject to the divorce laws of that state. 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 it’s residency requirements, toggling between a year of living continually in Nevada to establish residency, to six months, to three months. Finally, in 1931, laws passed that shortened the length of time a person needed 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 entrepreneurial spirit, local ranch and home owners 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 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 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 as 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 times 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.
So, why is Reno such an important part of the history of divorce? 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, into the next chapters of their lives.
Not My Fault!
Until the late 1960s, divorce laws always required the petitioning party to prove fault in order to have their divorce granted. That meant that a person could not divorce their spouse merely because they were unhappy in the relationship, but rather had to prove that 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 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.
That all began to change in 1969 when Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, signed California’s Family Law Act. The act created a “no fault” option for couples divorcing in California, who could now divorce citing irreconcilable differences as the reason for the ending of their marriage. 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.
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. This increased efficiency moved divorce case 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.
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. The early online legal technology companies focused mainly on estate planning documents, like wills and powers of attorney, and business formation documents.
As the speed of technology and information sharing grew, so did 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.
Hello Divorce launched in California. 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 in attorney fees. Hello Divorce has since expanded to Colorado and Utah, and plans to continue to bring their affordable services nationwide.
As demand for affordable and convenient legal services continues to grow, so will the popularity of the “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 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.