Will Cheating Impact My Divorce?

This Week’s Blog by Andy M. Eliot

  • Connecticut is a “no-fault” divorce state; in order to obtain a divorce, one party need only allege that the marriage has “broken down irretrievably.”
  • “No-fault” divorce is distinguishable from the concept of “marital fault” in a divorce. In Connecticut, courts are permitted to consider the causes of the breakdown of a marriage in determining financial issues such as property distribution and alimony.
  • Notwithstanding that Courts may consider the cause of the breakdown of a marriage in fashioning financial awards in a divorce, as a practical matter, instances of infidelity typically have little or no impact on financial outcomes in a Connecticut divorce.

Divorce attorneys practicing in towns such as Greenwich and Westport regularly receive inquiries from clients or potential clients wishing to know what impact, if any, marital infidelity will have upon their divorce.  The query may come from a spouse who has engaged in an extra-marital affair and is concerned he or she will be penalized financially for his or her transgression.  Alternatively, it may come from an aggrieved spouse who, upon learning that his or her spouse has engaged in an extra-marital relationship, seeks to be compensated somehow in the divorce for the other party’s misconduct.

In examining this issue, it is important to first understand the difference between “no-fault” divorce and “marital fault,” two distinct concepts that are easily confused.  Like most states, Connecticut has a “no-fault” divorce statute, which enables any married person to obtain a divorce from his or her spouse without having to prove, or even allege, that their spouse is responsible for the deterioration of the marriage.  Instead, in order to obtain a divorce in Connecticut, one party need only allege that he or she believes that the marriage has “broken down irretrievably.”

Notably, however, Connecticut Courts are permitted, pursuant to statute, to consider what caused the breakdown of a marriage in fashioning property distribution and alimony awards in a divorce. In other words, if a Connecticut court determines that one party bears more of the blame for the breakdown of the marriage than the other, the court may, in its discretion, award the less blame-worthy spouse a greater share of the marital estate than he or she might otherwise have received, or grant that party a more favorable alimony order than he or she might otherwise have received.  It is in this context that any instances of infidelity may be relevant to the financial outcome of a divorce – since such conduct might have caused (or at least contributed to) the breakdown of the marriage.

That said, many potential clients with whom we speak have a fundamental misunderstanding of how significant (or insignificant, as the case may be) an impact instances of infidelity are likely to have upon the outcome of their case.  As hurtful or abhorrent as infidelity is to most people, the practical reality is that it is rarely a transgression that moves judges to penalize an offending party financially in a divorce, except in the most egregious circumstances and usually only if there are additional factors in play that render that party more blame-worthy than his or her spouse for the breakdown of the marriage.  Moreover, even in situations where a judge is inclined to award a non-offending party a more favorable financial outcome based upon the misconduct of the other party, the Court is likely to do so only to a very modest degree.  One noteworthy exception to the foregoing arises in situations where a cheating spouse dissipates marital resources in connection with an extra-marital relationship (for example, by purchasing lavish gifts for a paramour or paying for secret vacations together).  In this type of scenario, judges are much more inclined to compensate the non-offending party for the offending party’s dissipation of marital resources, if it was done in contemplation of divorce.

Divorce cases in which “cause of the breakdown” is an issue that materially alters the outcome of a case are somewhat rare, but they certainly do exist.  At Broder & Orland LLC, we have extensive experience with such cases and can help clients evaluate and navigate “cause of breakdown issues” to ensure that the most favorable outcome possible is achieved.