Many states recognize abandonment as a grounds for divorce. As well, if a spouse abandons the home, this may amount to a legal separation in some jurisdictions. Also, if there are children incident to the marriage, abandonment by one parent can ultimately result in loss of parental rights. Each state sets its own length requirements with respect to how long the spouse must be absent before the court will declare the other spouse legally abandoned.
Abandonment as a Divorce Ground
Many jurisdictions still retain common law grounds for divorce. This differs from today's "no-fault divorce," which is utilized by many couples to obtain a divorce based upon irreconcilable differences. States providing divorcing spouses with specific grounds with which to sue for divorce often provide the opportunity to seek a divorce based upon abandonment. Many states require abandonment in excess of one year.
Divorce Rights of Abandoned Spouse
A spouse who has been abandoned or deserted may then file for divorce against the other spouse. The spouse will have the same rights in the divorce proceeding as spouses in divorces based upon other fault grounds or in no-fault divorce. These rights include spousal support and equitable distribution of property.
Effect of Abandonment Upon Children
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If one spouse abandons the other, the effects can extend beyond grounds for divorce. Spouses can actually lose custody of or parental rights with their children for abandoning the other spouse longer than the statutorily required period. Some states require six straight months of abandonment, while others require one year or more. Parents who have disappeared from the child's life can lose custody and parental rights upon a finding by the court that the parent has detrimentally affected the child's welfare. In addition, the court can take away parental rights without the consent or presence of the missing parent.
Crime of Child Abandonment
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In addition to the family law consequences of abandoning children of the marriage, most jurisdictions provide for criminal abandonment. It is considered a misdemeanor in many states to leave a child under age 18 with the intent to permanently desert or abandon that child. This crime can apply to a biological parent, custodian or guardian.