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Divorce

Fault-Based Divorce: Extreme Cruelty

Divorce

Fault-Based Divorce: Extreme Cruelty

Table of Contents

What is extreme cruelty? What can I do if my spouse has been extremely cruel in a marriage? What impact might abandonment have on my divorce?

Author

Andrea Keith, Esq.

Andrea Keith, Esq.

Managing Partner, Keith & Highland Law, PC

Andrea graduated from Whittier Law School as a Children's Rights Fellow, Dean Merit Scholarship, Law Review and Moot Court Board. She was a junior and senior clerk for the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office throughout law school. She was a law clerk for the Honorable Judge Ferguson of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. In 2007, she worked as an attorney with the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office. In 2016, she began her appellate work with the Second, Third, and Fifth District Court of Appeal as well as the California Supreme Court. She has continued that work today and is now in private practice.

Divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty is a legal basis for ending a marriage that involves enduring physical, emotional, or psychological harm from one spouse towards the other.

This ground for divorce is recognized in many jurisdictions across the United States, offering an avenue for individuals to escape toxic and abusive relationships. While the concept of extreme cruelty remains consistent, the specific criteria and processes for filing such divorces can vary significantly from state to state, reflecting the diverse legal frameworks and standards that govern divorce proceedings across the nation. In this article, we will delve into the essential aspects of divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty, exploring how it applies in different states and the varying ways in which it is interpreted and adjudicated in the courts.

Is extreme cruelty a ground for divorce, and what are some examples?

The availability of extreme cruelty as a ground for divorce is not limited to "at fault" states. Divorce laws fall into two main categories: fault-based and no-fault divorce.

Extreme cruelty, as a ground for divorce, typically involves a pattern of behavior or actions that cause significant harm, suffering, or distress to one spouse, making it untenable to continue the marriage. While the specific examples and legal definitions may vary by jurisdiction, here are some common examples of extreme cruelty that may serve as grounds for divorce:

  1. Physical Abuse: Repeated incidents of physical violence, such as hitting, slapping, punching, or other forms of physical harm inflicted by one spouse on the other.
  2. Emotional or Psychological Abuse: Persistent emotional or psychological mistreatment, which can include verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation, control, or manipulation that seriously impacts the emotional well-being of the victim.
  3. Verbal or Mental Cruelty: Consistent and severe verbal or mental abuse that includes insults, constant criticism, name-calling, or belittling, leading to emotional distress.
  4. Threats and Harassment: Ongoing threats, stalking, or harassment from one spouse directed towards the other, creating an environment of fear and insecurity.
  5. Financial Exploitation: Deliberate financial exploitation, such as withholding financial support or controlling all financial resources, to the detriment of the dependent spouse.
  6. Adultery: In some jurisdictions, adultery may be considered extreme cruelty if it leads to severe emotional distress for the other spouse.
  7. Substance Abuse: A spouse's persistent and destructive substance abuse that causes significant harm or danger to the well-being of the other spouse or the family.
  8. Abandonment: Desertion or abandonment by one spouse without justifiable cause, leaving the other spouse in a state of emotional and financial distress.

In which states is extreme cruelty a ground for divorce?

It appears that "extreme cruelty" is explicitly recognized as a ground for divorce in several states, including Ohio and New Jersey, among others. These examples demonstrate how the definition and acceptance of extreme cruelty as a ground for divorce can vary significantly between states:

  • Ohio: Extreme cruelty encompasses a broad range of behaviors causing physical or emotional harm, making the marriage intolerable. This can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, or persistent malicious mistreatment​​.
  • New Jersey: Extreme cruelty is listed under at-fault grounds for divorce, along with other reasons such as adultery, abandonment, addiction, sexual misconduct, imprisonment, and institutionalization​​.

Proving Extreme Cruelty in a Divorce

Proving extreme cruelty as grounds for divorce can be a challenging process, as it typically requires providing evidence that supports your claim of sustained mistreatment or harm by your spouse. The specific requirements and procedures for proving extreme cruelty may vary from one jurisdiction to another, so it's essential to consult with an experienced family law attorney in your state who can provide guidance tailored to your circumstances. However, here are some general steps and considerations that may be involved in proving extreme cruelty:

  1. Document Incidents: Keep a detailed record of incidents of extreme cruelty, including dates, times, locations, and descriptions of the abusive behavior. This documentation can serve as crucial evidence.
  2. Gather Witnesses: Identify and speak to any witnesses who may have observed the abusive behavior or its effects on you. Their testimonies can bolster your case.
  3. Seek Medical or Counseling Records: If you've suffered physical injuries or emotional distress as a result of the cruelty, obtain medical records or counseling records that document your injuries or psychological impact.
  4. Collect Correspondence: Save any relevant text messages, emails, or written communications that demonstrate the abusive behavior or the impact it had on you.
  5. Obtain Police Reports: If law enforcement was involved in any incidents related to the cruelty (such as domestic violence calls), obtain copies of police reports.
  6. Seek Expert Testimony: In some cases, expert testimony from mental health professionals or other specialists may be beneficial in establishing the emotional or psychological harm caused by extreme cruelty.
  7. Consult with an Attorney: Work closely with a family law attorney who can guide you through the legal process, help you gather the necessary evidence, and ensure you follow the specific rules and requirements of your jurisdiction.
  8. File a Complaint: Initiate the divorce proceedings by filing a complaint or petition with the appropriate court. In your legal documents, clearly state the grounds for divorce as extreme cruelty and provide supporting evidence.
  9. Adhere to Legal Procedures: Follow all the legal procedures and court rules related to divorce in your jurisdiction, as these can vary significantly from one place to another.
  10. Attend Court Hearings: Be prepared to present your case in court, including presenting evidence and witnesses, if necessary. Your attorney will guide you through this process.

What do I do if my spouse is claiming extreme cruelty in a divorce proceeding to end my marriage? How can I defend myself?

If your spouse is claiming extreme cruelty in a divorce proceeding and you believe these allegations are untrue or unfair, you have the right to defend yourself. It's essential to consult with an experienced family law attorney who can guide you through the legal process and help you build a defense strategy. Here are some common legal grounds and strategies you can consider to defend yourself against allegations of extreme cruelty:

  1. Denial of Allegations: If the allegations of extreme cruelty are false, maintain your innocence and deny any wrongdoing. Your attorney can help you present your case effectively.
  2. Gather Evidence: Collect evidence that contradicts or refutes the claims of extreme cruelty. This may include text messages, emails, witnesses, or any other documentation that shows a different perspective on your relationship.
  3. Counter-Allegations: If you believe your spouse has engaged in behavior that could be considered extreme cruelty, you may choose to file counter-allegations. Be prepared to provide evidence supporting your claims.
  4. Mediation or Settlement: Explore the possibility of mediation or negotiation with your spouse to reach a mutually acceptable settlement. This can help avoid a lengthy and adversarial court battle.
  5. Character Witnesses: Seek character witnesses who can testify on your behalf, attesting to your behavior and character in the marriage.
  6. Counseling or Therapy: If relevant, consider attending counseling or therapy to address any issues in the marriage and demonstrate a willingness to work on improving the relationship.
  7. Child Custody and Support: If child custody and support issues are involved, focus on demonstrating your commitment to the well-being of your children and your ability to provide a stable environment for them.
  8. Consult Your Attorney: Keep open communication with your attorney and follow their advice regarding the best defense strategy in your specific case.
  9. Maintain Composure: Stay composed and respectful during court proceedings and interactions with your spouse. Maintaining a calm demeanor can be important in court.

Remember that the legal process can be complex and emotionally challenging, especially in cases involving allegations of extreme cruelty.

Is extreme cruelty grounds for divorce in California?

Extreme cruelty is recognized as one of the grounds for divorce in California. In California, divorce can be pursued based on either "fault" or "no-fault" grounds.

Extreme cruelty would fall under the "fault" category, specifically as a ground for divorce based on "cruelty." In California, it is referred to as "cruelty" rather than "extreme cruelty," but the concept is similar. To use cruelty as a ground for divorce in California, you would need to demonstrate that your spouse has treated you with such cruelty that it has endangered your health or made it "unsafe or improper" for you to continue living with them.

Is extreme cruelty grounds for divorce in New York?

Extreme cruelty is recognized as one of the fault-based grounds for divorce in the state of New York. Under New York divorce law, extreme cruelty can be cited as a reason for seeking a divorce. To use extreme cruelty as a ground for divorce in New York, you would need to demonstrate that your spouse has subjected you to physical or mental cruelty that makes it unsafe or improper to continue the marriage.

New York also allows for "no-fault" divorces, where couples can cite "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage" as the reason for divorce without assigning blame to either spouse. This no-fault option can be a more straightforward and amicable way to dissolve a marriage.

If my state has both fault and no-fault divorce, does it matter if I apply for a divorce on fault-based grounds?

In states where both fault-based and no-fault grounds for divorce are recognized (read more about the pros and cons of each), there are several key differences between the two approaches that can impact the divorce process and its outcomes:

  1. Filing Requirements: When filing for a no-fault divorce, both spouses typically agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken, eliminating the need to prove wrongdoing or assign blame. In contrast, a fault-based divorce requires one spouse to allege specific grounds for the divorce, such as cruelty or adultery, and provide evidence to support these claims.
  2. Easier Process: No-fault divorces are generally less adversarial and contentious because they do not involve assigning fault or blame. This can lead to a quicker and more amicable resolution, reducing the emotional and financial costs associated with litigation.
  3. Property Division: In some states, fault-based divorce can be a factor in property division decisions. For example, a spouse found at fault for the divorce may receive a smaller share of marital assets. In a no-fault divorce, property division is typically based on principles of equitable distribution or community property, depending on the state's laws, and fault may not play a role in asset allocation.
  4. Alimony (Spousal Support): In some cases, fault may be considered when determining spousal support or alimony awards. A spouse found at fault may be ordered to pay higher alimony, while a no-fault divorce might not weigh fault as heavily in these decisions.
  5. Child Custody: Fault-based divorces may sometimes influence child custody determinations, particularly if one spouse's behavior is deemed harmful to the child's well-being. In no-fault divorces, custody decisions are generally made based on the child's best interests rather than fault.
  6. Emotional Impact: Fault-based divorces can be emotionally challenging and may exacerbate hostility between spouses, making it more difficult to co-parent and maintain a civil relationship after the divorce. No-fault divorces tend to be less acrimonious.
  7. Burden of Proof: In fault-based divorces, the spouse alleging fault must provide evidence to support their claims, which can be a demanding and time-consuming process. In no-fault divorces, there is no need to prove fault, simplifying the legal proceedings.

The choice between filing for divorce on fault-based or no-fault grounds depends on individual circumstances, legal considerations, and personal preferences. In many cases, couples opt for no-fault divorces because they are generally less contentious and offer a more straightforward path to dissolution. However, in situations where fault is clear and can impact property division, spousal support, or child custody, a fault-based divorce may be pursued. Consulting with a family law attorney is advisable to determine the best approach for your specific situation.

Do you need a divorce lawyer? What are your options?

The decision whether to file on grounds of abandonment is difficult in an already painful time. Consulting a lawyer that can help guide you through this process is often a good idea.

Hiring a lawyer is not your only path to getting legal guidance for your situation. Several lawyers and law firms have worked with Gavel to produce “legal apps” that can help you with this process:

Sources:

[1] https://www.friedmanmirman.com/blog/2023/july/the-grounds-for-divorce-in-your-state/

[2] https://www.johnsonlawnj.com/blog/2023/05/can-you-file-a-new-jersey-divorce-based-on-extreme-cruelty/

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