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Marital Abandonment in Modern Divorce: What It Means and Why It Matters

A common term that crops up in discussions of divorce is “abandonment.” Sometimes, one partner will simply decide that they’re done with a marriage, and they’ll leave. Instead of going through the process of getting a divorce, the neglectful partner just disappears and acts like the marriage is over without handling the legal proceedings.

This is known as “marital abandonment,” and it has a long history in legal separations. Understanding how a deserting spouse impacts the separation process can help you choose your course of action. Here’s everything you need to know about marital abandonment and how it affects modern divorces.

What Is Marital Abandonment?

At its core, marital abandonment is about a failure to take responsibility for a spouse. When two people get married, they take on rights and obligations towards each other. In states like California, any assets they acquire during their marriage become community assets, and both partners are obliged to support each other if possible.

When a spouse abandons their partner, they don’t fulfill that obligation. They may not share their assets with their partner, they may work to withhold benefits like healthcare or Social Security, or they may just disappear entirely. In any of these cases, the abandoned spouse can no longer rely on them for support. They may even lose some of their joint assets if the deserting partner changes access to co-owned financial accounts.

Abandonment and Divorce

For many years, claiming abandonment was one of the only ways a couple could get a divorce. In “at-fault” states, one partner had to prove that the other person has harmed them somehow. Common “faults” that were considered grounds for separation included:

  • Abandonment
  • Cruelty
  • Adultery
  • Impotency
  • Infertility
  • Criminal convictions
  • Mental instability
  • Homosexuality

It’s clear from the list of “faults” that at-fault divorce is from another time. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that every state in the U.S. permitted “no-fault” divorce, or separations for “irreconcilable difference.”

Luckily for California residents, the state was the first in the union to offer no-fault divorces. In 1948, Ronald Regan passed the nation’s first no-fault bill after his ex-wife accused him of “mental cruelty” to get a separation earlier that year.

At-Fault vs. No-Fault Divorces

Today, divorce is much simpler than it used to be. Finding fault in your partner made it difficult for many unhappy couples to get a separation because neither person wanted to be the one to “blame” legally. That’s why no-fault divorces slowly became the norm nationwide.

A no-fault separation doesn’t require either person to take the blame for the end of the marriage. Instead, marriages end because of “irreconcilable differences.” This saves everyone’s time and effort because the splitting pair doesn’t need to agree to a strategy to get a divorce.

While no-fault divorce is definitely more straightforward, some people find it less satisfying. If one spouse has abandoned the other, committed adultery, or been convicted of a crime, the other partner may want to use that against them in the divorce. Unfortunately, in California, judges can no longer take either partner’s behavior into account during the process except under certain circumstances. If you feel betrayed by your ex, that won’t be considered during your divorce.

Marital Abandonment Today

Since it’s no longer necessary or possible to legally “prove” that the other person is at fault for your divorce, marital abandonment has become much less critical. It’s still possible to abandon your spouse, of course – it’s just not necessary to prove that to legally separate.

For example, your partner can still stop providing for you or vice versa. If one person stops providing for the other person, such as failing to pay rent, bills, or otherwise supporting them in the way they have in the past, they are not fulfilling their marital obligations.

Getting Support from a Negligent Partner

If you’ve been abandoned by your spouse, you have options. In California, you legally own half of any assets you and your partner earn during the marriage, even if you aren’t working during that time. If your partner has stopped giving you access to joint funds and accounts, you can take legal action to regain control over your rightful property.

You may need to get a divorce or a court order if you take legal steps, however. Someone who is actively attempting to keep you from your rightful property will likely resist anything less serious. By getting a separation from your partner, you can force the state to equally divide the marital property between the pair of you. As a result, you’ll have full control over half of the property, and your ex-partner will no longer have any rights to it.

If you get divorced, you may also qualify for court-ordered spousal support. Also known as alimony, spousal support is a set of payments that your ex must give you while you’re separated. These payments are intended to help you return to supporting yourself after the end of the marriage.

Finally, if you have underage children and your partner abandons you and them without support, they may have committed criminal abandonment. They have a legal obligation to support your children, and abandonment of a minor is a criminal charge. In this case, they are likely to lose custody if you get divorced. This means that you can also request child support after the separation to continue caring for your children.


It hurts when your spouse chooses to abandon you, and it’s absolutely grounds for a divorce. However, you no longer need to prove abandonment just to get that split. With no-fault divorce, you can get the process started for any reason, proving harm is no longer necessary. Modern marriage and separations are simpler because of that.

Of course, if your partner has abandoned you, it may still affect the course of your divorce. If you believe your spouse has stopped handling their marital obligations, you should reach out to a qualified divorce attorney to discuss your options. Whether or not your spouse wants to get involved, you can still get the separation you need.