Fifty years ago this summer, California implemented the first no-fault divorce statute in the nation. Here are five facts you should know about the policy that changed marriage in America.
1. No-fault divorce is the term for the dissolution of a marriage on a finding that the relationship is no longer viable, without any need to show “fault” or marital misconduct. Before passage of no-fault, marriages were dissolved on the basis of marital misconduct, such as abandonment, adultery, and cruelty. “Just like in every other lawsuit,” says Beverly Willett, “plaintiffs had to allege and prove a violation of their legal rights—the very definition of justice. But lawmakers abolished this requirement in divorce cases.”
2. The first modern no-fault divorce law was enacted in 1917 in Soviet Russia. A primary goal of the Bolsheviks was, as Elizabeth Brainerd explains, to “break down the traditional ‘bourgeois’ structure of the family in order to equalize the status of men and women.” They did this by implementing a number of changes to the Family Code, including allowing civil marriages (whereas before only religious marriage was allowed) and instituting no-fault divorce. By 1926, to get a divorce a spouse needed only to register with the local bureau of statistics and the other spouse would be notified three days later. “The results were what we would expect: “Divorce became much more common,” says Brainerd, “and for men, re-marriage emerged as a new and widespread marital institution in the wake of divorce. Women were much more likely to remain divorced.” When Joseph Stalin came to power ten years later he reversed the policy because of its destructive impact on the family
3. In 1966, California Governor Edmund G. Brown established the Governor's Commission on the Family to undertake a "concerted assault on the high incidence of divorce in our society and its often tragic consequences.” The Commission issued a list of recommendations, including eliminating “existing fault grounds of divorce.”
Three years later, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act of 1969 into law, making California the first no-fault divorce state in the nation. As Elizabeth Schoenfeld once wrote, “with a stroke of his pen, California governor Ronald Reagan wiped out the moral basis for marriage in America.” Five years after passage of the California law, no-fault divorce statutes were enacted in forty-five states. New York became the last state to pass a no-fault law in 2010. Reagan later admitted that signing the no-fault divorce bill was one of the biggest mistakes of his political life.
4. From 1867 to 1915, the divorce rate remained 1% or less (one divorce for every 1,000 population) and remained less than 2% until 1940. The first year the divorce rate exceeded 3% was in 1969, the year California became the first state to adopt no-fault divorce. The divorce rate peaked between 1979 and 1981 at 5.3 percent. Since then, the divorce rate has steadily declined along with the rate of marriage. (From 1968 to 1987, the marriage rate stayed at or above 9.9 percent. It dropped to 9.7 percent in 1988 and 1989, climbed back to 9.8 percent in 1990, and dropped steadily until 2017 where it remained at 6.9 percent.) The current divorce rate is 2.9%.
5. The effects of no-fault divorce were much greater than just the direct impacts on the divorce rate, says Douglas W. Allen. Writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Allan notes,
The law influenced the rate at which women entered the workforce, the number of hours worked in a week, the incidence of spousal abuse, the feminization of poverty, and the age at which people married. It influenced a series of other laws related to spousal and child support, custody, joint parenting, and the definition of marital property. Many of these changes had subsequent impacts on the stability of marriages. In short, the actual outcomes of no-fault divorce were completely unanticipated and unintended.
Perhaps the most unexpected result of the no-fault divorce revolution was the creation of a divorce culture, says Allan:
By inadvertently allowing for opportunistic divorce, the law created a whole new class of inequality as many women and children entered poverty through divorce. The sheer size of this group over the span of thirty years has influenced everything from greeting cards to day care centers. The divorce culture has led to a society with more coercion, individualism, and less commitment. Schools now teach ‘life skills,’ ‘job counseling,’ and ‘secular ethics’; these lessons were, at one time, universally taught by families.