Divorce is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through. It often has cultural and religious underpinnings in addition to legal significance. Divorce, like marriage, is the province of state governments, not the federal government. Each state has its own variety of divorce law. In many states what is commonly called "divorce" is legally known as "dissolution of marriage."
The common understanding of the word "divorce" is the process by which a person legally terminates his or her status and legal obligations as a married person and reverts to single status. In most states, the legal process that ends a marriage is known as "dissolution." Outside of the legal community, "dissolution" and "divorce" are interchangeable. Put plainly, both are the legal termination of a marriage. The legal difference requires a brief understanding of the history of marriage and divorce in the United States.
Termination of marriage has gone through several phases in the Untied States. There was a time when, in most states, it was impossible to get a divorce. As ideas about marriage began to change, states began to adopt divorce laws at different times. To obtain a divorce, "fault" had to be shown of one of the parties in the marriage. This means that one spouse had to plead that the other spouse did something that constituted grounds for divorce. These narrow grounds included adultery, abandonment or a felony. In other words, a divorce could not be granted if the couple merely fell out of love. There had to be a showing of "wrong-doing." If the grounds weren't proven, a judge could deny the divorce. This system used to terminate marriages was an inherently adversarial system, meaning one party was pitted against the other. Starting in the 1970s, states made a fundamental shift away from "fault" divorce.
Starting with California in 1970, states began shifting to "no-fault" divorce. "No-fault" divorce eliminates the requirement of a showing of wrong-doing or of the introduction of evidence. Either party can petition to terminate the marriage and the cases are handled in Family Court. With the shift away from adversarial divorce came a new term for the ending of a marriage, "dissolution." Dissolution dissolves the bonds of marriage. Either spouse (or both) must state that their marriage is "irretrievably broken," or has suffered "irreconcilable differences" or an "irretrievable breakdown" or a similar idea. Every state (except New York) has a version of "no-fault" divorce, which many call "dissolution of marriage."
"No-fault" divorce has made ending a marriage faster and easier than before. The shift to dissolution is deeply rooted in a change in values about marriage, women and the family unit. Whether these changes have been positive for American society is a hotly debated issue.
Not every state is the same. Each state has specific laws that govern how to legally terminate a marriage (see Resources). An attorney can best explain your legal options when seeking to end a marriage.