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What Are Irreconcilable Differences?


People divorce for many reasons. Some grow apart while others experience acrimonious ruptures. To divorce, people must state a legal reason.

One term often used when discussing divorce is “irreconcilable differences,” or the idea that two people are so far apart that they are unable to heal their fundamental disagreements.

But this refers to more than relationship snafus or topics to discuss in couples therapy. It can be helpful to understand what “irreconcilable differences” mean in a legal sense.

What Are Irreconcilable Differences?

All states have a form of what is called no-fault divorce, which essentially means that neither partner did something wrong. It can be as simple as stating that a couple is not getting along and wants to end the marriage.

This is citing irreconcilable differences, or the inability to agree on fundamental things.

Courts moved toward no-fault divorce for various reasons, including that it could be seen as unseemly to need to prove a relationship collapse and it is difficult to judge who is telling the truth, says Scott Altman, professor of family law at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.

“It just seemed unnecessary,” Altman says. “Some people thought that it exacerbated the harm of divorce.”

Examples of irreconcilable differences can include not living together for a long time or disagreements over finances or debts. Couples might fundamentally disagree on how to raise children or save money. Lack of intimacy is another example. Other causes can include continued arguments or a lack of trust.

What Do ‘Irreconcilable Differences’ Mean in a Legal Context?

Each state has its unique requirements for what parties need to do to initiate a divorce.

With a no-fault divorce, no person needs to be at fault or have done something wrong – an affair or betrayal, for example – to prove the marriage should end. The reason can simply be that a couple can no longer get along.

According to the American Bar Association, the most common bases for no-fault divorces are irreconcilable differences and irretrievable marriage breakdowns. “As those terms imply, the marriage is considered over, but the court and the relevant legal documents make no effort to assign blame. Another common basis for no-fault divorce is the parties living separately for a certain period of time, such as for six months or a year, with the intent that the separation be permanent.”

Another word for this same issue is “incompatibility,” according to the ABA.

Regardless of the term, they all mean that the marriage can’t be saved, Altman says.

Typically, you do not need to prove you have irreconcilable differences – in other words, you don’t need to show you have tried to go to therapy or otherwise tried to resolve differences.

“When the idea was first introduced, some people imagined that courts would look carefully to see if the marriage could be saved,” Altman says. But that has not proved to be the case. “Courts are not examining your claim that the marriage is over,” he says.

“They’re just allegations,” says Lynn S. Muster, visiting professor of practice at New England Law Boston. “You just have to say it. The crux of what it means is that the marriage cannot function because the parties disagree on important decisions. They simply can’t co-exist.”

Those disagreements could be around wanting to have kids or how to raise children. Even political views can become irreconcilable differences, she says.

Can You Get Divorced Without Irreconcilable Differences?

Some states also have fault-based divorce, which includes grounds such as adultery, cruelty or abandonment. If one party has deserted the other, for example, that may count as fault-based divorce.

As an alternative, some states recognize living apart for a specific amount of time as grounds for a divorce. Muster notes that all states differ on requirements before a divorce. Some states have different lengths of time couples must wait to get divorced. In other states, she says, “You blink and you’re divorced.”



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