Column: California settled no-fault divorce decades ago. Why is it back in the news?

Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

Ugly? You have no idea.

Every nasty little private thing a marriage could churn up, every infidelity, every insult and threat, every drunken episode and squandered paycheck, every crying child — there they all were, spilled out from a witness stand in a courtroom.

Then and only then, after wife or husband had exhausted the litany of the other's transgressions, could a judge declare them no longer a couple.

And that was the nature of divorce before no-fault divorce laws.

Not every divorce was that emotionally gruesome — not by a long shot — but almost everywhere in the country, a divorce required a wronged spouse, a sinning spouse, and some kind of proof to a legally satisfactory standard. That proof often took sleazy turns, which we'll get into later.

California, ever the pioneer, was the first state to legalize no-fault divorce in 1969. Other states followed suit — New York, the last, in 2010, about two whole generations later.


Thereafter, at-fault divorces could still happen, and they still can. But with no-fault divorces, a couple could split amiably, without accusing or proving anything like bigamy or fraud or abandonment. Under California no-fault law, breakups weren't even called "divorce" anymore, but "dissolution of marriage." One becomes two; go in peace.

And now, some conservatives — including House Speaker Mike Johnson — want to end no-fault divorce; they believe it has contributed to making ours what Johnson once called a "completely amoral society."

Ronald Reagan was governor of California when, a few days after Labor Day 1969, he signed the nation's first no-fault law. His statement: "I believe it is a step towards removing the acrimony and bitterness between a couple that is harmful not only to their children but also to society as a whole." Divorce is a "tragic thing," but the new law will "do much to remove the sideshow elements in many divorce cases."

Many years before, Reagan had starred in the sideshow. His first wife, actress Jane Wyman, went to court to end their eight-year marriage. She claimed one of the standard grounds for at-fault divorce: an elastic legal term, "extreme mental cruelty."


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