Family Law

Grounds for Divorce: Cruelty

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Learn more about what you can do if you find yourself in an abusive marriage.

No one marries their true love expecting to get divorced. Even worse, some spouses may eventually find themselves in an abusive marriage. A spouse who has been habitually abused by the other may request a divorce based on physical or mental cruelty.

What is Cruelty?

Even the best marriages experience emotional ups and downs. It’s not uncommon for a loving spouse to have a bad day, or blow up and say regrettable things to the other. However, repetitive abuse or inhumane treatment constitutes cruelty or domestic violence: This can result in broken bones or broken furnishings, or it can cause emotional harm through repeated intimidation, violent language, verbal abuse, or threats of harm.

What Acts Constitute Cruelty in a Marriage?

Since laws regarding marriage and divorce vary from state to state, the rules governing cruelty will differ depending on where you live. The only way to know exactly what counts as grounds for cruelty in your state is to read the statute or to consult a local family law attorney for advice. Some common examples of cruelty include the following:

  • physical attacks on a spouse
  • continuous rage, anger, screaming, or yelling at a spouse
  • constant belittling or criticizing the other spouse’s abilities, employment, or looks
  • publicly flaunting an affair or adulterous relationship
  • falsely accusing the other spouse of committing adultery
  • failing to tell the other spouse about an acquired sexually transmitted disease, while continuing to maintain sexual relations with spouse, and
  • consistently staying away from the marital residence without any explanation.

How is Cruelty Different From Neglect?

In some states, cruelty and neglect are synonymous grounds for divorce. What this means is that a spouse who has abandoned the family without providing any financial support over a period of time, may have committed cruelty. Generally, neglect or abandonment is easier to prove than cruelty. Some state laws use the terms “indignities” or “neglect” to refer to mental and physical abuse. Check the laws of your state to see if you can file for divorce based on cruelty or neglect.

How Do I Prove Cruelty as a Divorce Ground?

Many states recognize both fault and no-fault divorce grounds. If you’re seeking a fault divorce based on cruelty, you have the burden of proving that you’ve experienced such extreme cruelty that staying in the marriage is impossible. Claiming you were married to a mean-spirited, nagging wife or a hot-tempered husband probably won’t be enough.

Proving cruelty can be difficult because of the “he said-she said” nature of these allegations. For example, if you testify to a judge about your spouse’s unkind acts, your spouse may respond that you are to blame and bring up all your past transgressions. A cruelty trial can easily end up turning on which spouse is more believable. To support your case, you should bring copies of police reports, medical records, text messages, and emails that evidence any kind of abuse and photos of physical injuries or property damage caused by your spouse.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I filed for divorce based on cruelty, but withdrew that case because my spouse promised to stop the abuse and get professional help. If the abuse starts again, can I restart the old case?
  • What evidence do I need to prove cruelty?
  • My spouse was very cruel to me for several years, but the cruelty recently stopped. Can I still get a divorce based on cruelty grounds?
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