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Can “Bad” Behavior Cost You in a Divorce?

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Celebrity couple Ben and Julianna Zobrist recently made headlines when they announced they were ending their marriage by filing legal proceedings on the same day in two different states. Ben, a major league baseball player, filed for legal separation in Tennessee, where the couple has owned a home for the last twelve years. Julianna, a singer and author, filed for divorce in Illinois, where the family has lived since Ben joined the Cubs in 2016. Married for thirteen years, the couple has three young children and had cultivated an image as a loving “All-American” family. As both have lucrative careers, this will no doubt be a high profile (i.e. expensive) divorce with lots of assets and property to divide up.

The interesting twist in this case is that Ben and Julianna chose to file petitions in different states. Four days after filing, Julianna withdrew her divorce petition, meaning that Tennessee will decide the couple’s separation and, if they ultimately divorce, will determine the division of assets, calculate maintenance, and divide the children’s time with their parents.

Why Does Location Matter?

You may be asking yourself why both Ben and Julianna were willing to spend the time—and money—to file their own individual petitions when only one filing was necessary. Generally, the rule is that the state where the first petition is filed has jurisdiction the over. However, since the petitions were filed on the same day, that could result in a legal fight over who was actually first. Dueling petitions meant the spouses would likely have spent the next several months battling in two courts to figure out which state has authority to hear the case. That fight would likely have resulted in a long legal battle, and lots of legal fees, for both Ben and Julianna before starting the actual divorce.

So why would someone spend all that time, money, and energy fighting over which state should hear their divorce case? Because it could save one person a lot of money. It could also be an opportunity for one spouse to air their personal grievances and hold the other responsible for the failure of the marriage. A finding of fault in a divorce, which is only available in certain states, can have significant financial and personal benefits for one spouse and serious repercussions for the other.

What is the Difference Between Fault and No-Fault Divorce?

In this case, Ben’s petition for a legal separation alleges that Julianna “has been guilty of inappropriate marital conduct which renders further cohabitation impossible.” Including allegations of fault in a divorce including infidelity, abandonment, cruelty, and even impotence in the marriage can result in a legal finding that one person was responsible for the marriage’s failure. However, these issues are only legally relevant in a fault divorce state where specific kinds of behavior can provide grounds for divorce. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, a finding of fault against one spouse can significantly impact how assets and property are divided up as well as the amount of maintenance awarded to the lower-earning spouse. As Ben is most likely the higher earner in the marriage, he stands to save a lot of money if he can prove that Juliana’s behavior broke up the marriage.

Divorce law varies throughout the United States. Many states, like Illinois, are strictly no-fault divorce states, meaning the person filing for divorce only needs to allege that “irreconcilable differences” exist between the spouses that ended the marriage. When Illinois changed to a purely no-fault state in 2016, spouses could no longer include allegations of “bad” behavior when filing for divorce. In the past, courts often needed to justify the divorce and looked at allegations of infidelity, mental or physical cruelty, abandonment, or other bad acts to provide a reason why the marriage should end. Now, neither spouse needs to allege or prove bad behavior to justify ending the marriage. Instead, they can simply allege that the marriage no longer works and cannot be repaired. This change in the laws simplified the process by eliminating the burden of finding one spouse at fault, which also preserves the couple’s privacy by ending the public blaming and shaming that often occurs in fault divorces.  

As a no-fault divorce state, Illinois no longer considers why the marriage ended when dividing up the couple’s assets. Instead, judges look strictly at the spouses’ incomes, property, assets, and their financial agreements during the marriage to determine a fair division of money and property between the spouses.

Tennessee, on the other hand, is a fault and no-fault state. That means that a judge can consider evidence of “bad” behavior by one or both spouses both as grounds for divorce and when dividing up property and assets as well as determining maintenance. So, if the higher earner cheats, runs off, is abusive, or commits some other bad act that destroys the marriage their behavior can cost them monetarily in the divorce. If the lower earner is the bad actor in the marriage, the judge may decide to award them less property and/or money than they would normally have been entitled to under the law. As Ben is currently signed to a four-year $56 million dollar contract with the Cubs, he stands to save a lot of money now, and in the future, by filing a fault divorce in Tennessee if he can prove that Julianna’s behavior caused the marriage to fail.

What Are the Benefits of a No-Fault Divorce?

Had Julianna’s case remained in Illinois, she would have been able to take advantage of the protections offered by a no-fault divorce. A divorce on the basis of irreconcilable differences would have kept Julianna’s alleged improprieties from being considered when granting the divorce and dividing the couple’s assets. Perhaps even more importantly, fault would have not been considered when calculating how much maintenance she will receive from Ben. As the lower earner in the marriage, a no-fault divorce in Illinois offered significant financial protections to Julianna. Additionally, by not allowing “bad” behavior to be alleged as grounds for the divorce, Illinois courts afforded her greater privacy during the divorce process by excluding potentially embarrassing private information from the pleadings. 

In deciding to become a strictly no-fault state in 2016, Illinois stopped using bad acts and blame as justification for divorce. Instead, they recognized that divorce was necessary for people to get themselves out of unhappy situations without having to reveal personal information in a public forum. No-fault divorce helps to preserve the couple’s privacy during a difficult time, which allows them greater dignity as they move on with their lives. It also provides a fair division of money and property based on the couple’s finances, not their behavior.

If you are finding yourself considering ending your marriage and want to know more about the benefits that a no-fault divorce in Illinois can afford you, we are here to help. Our firm has handled hundreds of divorces for people looking to move on with their lives. Give us a call today at (312) 893-5888 to schedule your free consultation with one of our knowledgeable and experienced family law attorneys.

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