California's No Fault Divorce Law
By Elizabeth Rayne, J.D.
Updated April 01, 2020
California started the no-fault divorce revolution when it passed the first no-fault divorce statute in 1969. The state is a pure no-fault state, meaning that neither spouse may place blame on the other spouse when filing for divorce. Instead, couples may divorce if the couple has "irreconcilable differences." Additionally, marital misconduct is mostly irrelevant when it comes to determining the terms of the divorce decree, including alimony, property division, child custody and support.
History of No-Fault Law
Although every state in the country now allows couples to divorce on no-fault grounds, California was the first state to pass a pure no-fault divorce law. Prior to the Family Law Act of 1969, couples in California could only divorce if they could plead fault-based grounds such as adultery, extreme cruelty or desertion. California's law followed New York's divorce reform in 1966, which allowed New York residents to divorce if they lived separately for at least two years. The New York law served to pave the way for California's divorce reform, which in turn, influenced the grounds for divorce all over the country.
Effect on Divorce Decree
In most cases, courts in California will not consider the fault of either spouse in determining the terms of the divorce, including property division, alimony, child custody and child support. California is a community property state, meaning that all marital property owned during the marriage is divided equally, regardless of the conduct of either spouse. Even if one spouse committed adultery or was extremely cruel to the other spouse, courts in California interpret the Family Law Act to mean that fault is irrelevant not only in granting the divorce, but also in deciding the terms of the divorce.
Exceptions to Fault Considerations
In limited circumstances, courts in California may consider a spouse's wrongdoing when determining the terms of the divorce. If one spouse hides assets or lies during the divorce proceedings, the courts may impose sanctions on the spouse, meaning the court may require her to pay money to the other spouse. Additionally, custody decisions are based on the best interest of the child. Although custody determinations will not serve to "punish" one spouse for marital misconduct, the court may consider the behavior of each parent, such as any evidence of domestic violence, when making a custody determination.
To file for divorce in California, either you or your spouse must have lived in the state for at least six months prior to filing. You may initiate the divorce process by filing a petition for the dissolution of marriage in the Superior Court in the county where you live. You must serve the paperwork on your spouse, meaning that it must be delivered by an adult other than yourself. The divorce may not be finalized until at least six months have passed since you filed the paperwork.
- BYU Law Review: No-Fault Divorce and the Divorce Conundrum
- California Courts: Divorce or Separation Basics
- Court of Appeals of California, Sixth District: In re Marriage of Tejeda
- Court of Appeals of California, Fourth District, Division Two: In re Marriage of Fillhart v. Fillhart
- WomensLaw.org: California Custody
- HG.org Global Legal Resources: California Divorce Law
Elizabeth Rayne earned her J.D. from Penn State University and has been practicing law since 2009, advising clients on issues ranging from employment law to nonprofit management. For two years, she served as a contributing editor for the "Vermont Environmental Monitor."