- Historic Sites
Liberty And Disunion
Three Centuries of Divorce, American Style
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
But Nevada’s response was immediate. By votes of 34–0 in the house and 13–1 in the senate, the state promptly cut its residence requirement to six weeks. Forty-two days constituted a pleasant vacation amid purple mountain majesties and chattering roulette wheels, with board and lodging as low as twenty-five dollars a week at some dude ranches. Reno flourished more than ever as a result of its willingness to offer escape from what one ex-governor of Nevada called “the medieval divorce laws of other states.” The 151 lawyers listed in its 1935 telephone book (in a city with only eighteen thousand permanent residents) had plenty of work, most of it undemanding, since 90 per cent of the cases were uncontested and a junior clerk could easily draw up the complaint. Fees averaged around two hundred and fifty dollars, and court costs under thirty dollars. Yet Renoites were slightly defensive. They liked to point out that their prosperity rested on easy marriage as well as divorce and that in 1934, for example, when 2,854 divorces were granted, 5,629 marriage licenses were issued. (Many, of course, went to brand-new divorcées beginning afresh.)
Other divorce centers rose and fell in popularity in the era between the two world wars. For the wealthy, Paris offered advantages in the twenties. The French grounds were broad (even to including “serious insults”), their judicial tradition was more interested in establishing facts than allotting blame, and until a 1928 tightening-up France’s courts did not always probe deeply into the genuineness of a petitioner’s declaration of permanent residence. Havana had a brief flurry in the thirties, as did the U.S. Virgin Islands—until the federal courts began to insist that a person who was claiming domicile in the territory would have to plan a longer stay than a Caribbean vacation. Mexico rose as a center for divorce after a 1914 law allowed its constituent states to set up liberal procedures. Chihuahua worked out a relaxed formula that required only one party to appear and establish “residence” by a simple statement of intent. If the other party consented, divorce could then be granted on several simple grounds, the least judicially agonizing of which was “incompatibility of character.” The procedure took less than a day (with a Mexican attorney standing in for the absent spouse), and the time could be pleasantly passed drinking beer and shopping in Juarez. In that one city alone in 1934, 2,223 divorces were granted to foreigners. Twenty years later the total had reached 5,625; 4,300 went to Americans. (It was still rising in 1970, when Chihuahua suddenly made its laws more stringent, in a conservative reaction.)
Migratory divorce was not without perils. Each state of the Union is obliged, under Article IV of the Constitution, to give “full faith and credit” to the judicial proceedings of sister states. But there is a catch. The other state must be acknowledged to have lawful jurisdiction. In many cases ex-spouses or heirs of persons divorced in out-of-state courts have sued to invalidate the decree by attacking the genuineness of the residence in the “foreign” legal domain. Sometimes they have won. The legal history of such cases is too tortuous for a layman to summarize without error. Suffice it to say that a husband or wife planning to get a divorce outside the home state would do well to consult a local attorney before buying tickets.
After 1945 statistics underscored what seemed to be a growing willingness to divorce, as an affluent and mobile population became impatient of pangs and frustrations once thought of as inevitable. A record-breaking number of divorces was recorded in 1946—682,760—as many returning veterans broke up unsatisfactory wartime alliances. In 1949 the ultimate bastion of conservatism, South Carolina, accepted the inevitable and adopted a divorce code. (New York, the other pillar, waited until 1966—but then adopted a liberal law that made voluntary, legalized separation for two years good enough reason for granting divorces.)
In the 1950’s Florida, which offered sun, sand, and dogtracks to the pleasure-bent divorce seeker, passed Nevada and granted an average of twenty thousand divorces annually, compared with ten thousand for the mountain state. A new and unusual divorce mill sprang up in Alabama, where sharp-eyed lawyers found that the residence requirement could be waived altogether if both parties acknowledged the jurisdiction of the state courts. A simple statement of intent to domicile from both parties allowed a judge to decide immediately that iniquities justifying a dissolution of the marriage had been committed. Before the Alabama supreme court, in 1964, cracked down on exploitation of this loophole, such celebrities as Hank Greenberg, John Daly, Grace Metalious, and Tina Onassis had utilized this brand of southern hospitality to be liberated from their spouses.