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What Are the Grounds for Divorce in Tennessee?

If you have made what can be a difficult decision to legally end a marriage, the next step is to move into the legal process. Filing for divorce requires specific reasons, or “grounds,” as the reasons are called in court.

There are 15 grounds for divorce in Tennessee, including no-fault and fault-based options. The grounds on which you file must be backed by evidence in family court. Most of those 15 can be grouped into five broad categories–irreconcilable differences, separation, sexual issues and behavior, criminal conduct, and domestic turmoil.

Irreconcilable Differences

This is the no-fault option. It simply says the couple can no longer get along. In one sense, a no-fault divorce can be easier on a psychological level. The end of a marriage often takes a serious emotional toll on people and being able to avoid formally charging someone with fault in a court of law can be a relief. But the grounds of irreconcilable differences require their own set of proof.

That evidence is agreement among the spouses. If you are the only one who is ready to end the marriage, you won’t be able to file on no-fault grounds.

If both spouses agree, it can reflect a desire for a reasonably amicable divorce–or an uncontested divorce. This goes beyond the specific grounds for ending the marriage and into how assets will be settled. To get an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse must also reach agreement on alimony, child custody and support, property division and everything else that the settlement must address.

Furthermore, if you believe your spouse really is at fault, proving it in court can, under certain circumstances, lead to provisions in the settlement that you may find favorable. A prominent example would be that if you can prove yourself the victim of domestic abuse, you’re extremely likely to get favorable child custody terms.

None of this is to discourage you from getting a no-fault divorce. It’s a reality that there are spouses who no longer get along, at least under the same roof, and neither one bears the blame for that. A no-fault divorce in these circumstances is certainly appropriate. It’s also true–as we’ll discuss in a moment–that proving fault-based grounds offers its own challenge.

We simply want you to be aware that the grounds of irreconcilable differences do require its own burden of proof and that choosing these grounds if there really is fault can come with its own costs in the settlement agreement.

Separation

It’s possible you could find yourself in a marriage where one spouse won’t agree to a divorce based on irreconcilable differences. Perhaps there’s no basis for any of the fault grounds. Are you stuck? The answer is no. Separation is a ground for divorce in the state of Tennessee.

You can move out and, after a period of two years, file for divorce based on separation. The two-year period must be continuous. Any decision to move back–or even to spend the night with your separated spouse–resets the two-year clock. The separation ground in this circumstance can be proven by your separate utility bills and a driver’s license with a new address on it.

There’s also separation that might not have been voluntary. What if you were the one abandoned? In that circumstance, the waiting period is reduced to one year. Although, if your spouse makes what the court considers a good faith offer to return, that alone is enough to nullify these grounds.

Sexual Issues and Behavior

Let’s say you find out your spouse has been living a double life, and there is another marriage that they entered after the two of you were married. Bigamy is illegal in the state of Tennessee, and this is grounds for divorce.

Infidelity is also grounds for divorce. This can include your spouse having an affair after your marriage. Keep in mind that this ground, like all others, must be backed by evidence. If you suspect your spouse is being unfaithful and are prepared to divorce, we strongly advise reaching out to an attorney immediately. Evidence-gathering must begin.

A private investigator might be hired, with the goal of getting photographic evidence. It’s also a good idea to start carefully monitoring your joint credit cards and accounts. You may be able to uncover expenses that a reasonable person would conclude were on behalf of another romantic partner.

What happens when a man finds out his wife was pregnant with another man’s child at the time of the marriage? It’s not adultery per se–they weren’t married at the time she became pregnant–but it can certainly feel like a betrayal if the husband doesn’t know about it after the fact.

This can only be used as a basis for divorce if the husband was not having an unmarried sexual relationship with the woman prior to their marriage. Otherwise, another ground for divorce needs to be found. Please note that the husband cannot use this as a ground for divorce if he was informed of the pregnancy before the marriage and still went through with the wedding.

The inability to have children is often a very sad ordeal that couples have to deal with. Impotency can be a ground for divorce, so long as the condition existed at the time of the marriage. For example, if either spouse has surgery to remove cancer five years into the marriage and suffers impotence as a result, then this ground cannot be applied. There must be medical evidence that the person was unable to procreate at the time they were married.

A refusal to engage in sexual relations with one’s spouse is also a ground for divorce. At the other extreme, a spouse who demands activities that are what we’ll delicately call unorthodox is also providing grounds for divorce. Both extremes fall under the category of inappropriate marital conduct.

Domestic Turmoil

Inappropriate marital conduct also applies to a broad range of actions that can be grouped under domestic turmoil.

The bluntest case of domestic turmoil is if you suspect your spouse of attempting to take your life. More common examples tragically include domestic violence. If you are a victim of domestic violence, personal safety is your immediate priority. Call The Domestic Violence Support Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Get yourself to a place where you are safe and can comfortably work with your attorney on the divorce filing.

Cases where you believe your life is in danger are also for the police and are a matter of criminal law. For our purposes here, citing it as a ground for divorce requires that the attempt be “deliberate and malicious.” Your spouse may claim it was an honest accident when they swerved their car and nearly hit you on the sidewalk outside your home. Your attorney has to help you prove otherwise.

If your spouse abuses drugs or alcohol, this can be a ground for divorce. One caveat is that your spouse’s addiction must not have been apparent at the time of the marriage. Furthermore, simply demonstrating that your spouse drinks too much after work will not be considered grounds. The burden of proof your attorney needs to help you meet is demonstrating habitual intoxication.

Abuse need not be physical to qualify as a ground for divorce. Verbal abuse can also be cited in family court. This doesn’t mean that every time spouses speak to each other in raised voices it can be invoked as the legal reason for the divorce. It may well damage the relationship and, depending on the context, may well lead you to conclude that there is no hope for the marriage. But to cite it as the basis for the divorce will require something more.

Repeated verbal abuse that affects you physically and emotionally is what can rise to the level of inappropriate marital conduct. This might be proven in court by the testimony of a counselor, of friends to whom you confide or medical records in the event you suffered any type of physical breakdown from the stress.

Criminal Conduct

If your spouse has been convicted of a felony and sent to prison, that alone is grounds for divorce. It’s also the easiest to prove since the conviction is right there in the state’s records. Even if the prison stay is comparably short–let’s say six months–that doesn’t matter. You can still file for divorce.

Tennessee law also stipulates that conviction of any crime that might be considered “infamous” is a ground for divorce. What is an infamous crime? Tennessee law in this regard still reads like we’re in the era of Davy Crockett. Horse stealing and breaking into an outhouse are classified as infamous crimes.

Infamous behavior also includes serious crimes such as rape and burglary. Presumably these would result in a felony conviction and become a ground for divorce on that basis.

The Decision to File for Divorce

If you believe you have grounds for divorce, it’s best to talk it over with an attorney. Connor & Roberts, PLLC has been helping people in the Tennessee Valley work through difficult personal issues for a combined total of nearly 40 years. We’d like to help you too. Let us listen to what’s going on in your marriage and we’ll work to find a legal strategy that’s consistent with what you want and workable in a court of law. Call us today at (423) 299-4489 or contact us online to set up an initial consultation.

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