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What is an “irretrievable breakdown” of a marriage?

You’ve probably heard the phrase on the entertainment news shows…a famous celebrity couple has filed for divorce due to “irreconcilable differences” or an “irretrievable breakdown” of their marriage. The latter term is used in Massachusetts. But what exactly does the term mean? 

Like most legal terms, it is subject to interpretation. The law itself that allows for divorce on these grounds, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 208, doesn’t define it.  Some cases from Massachusetts courts have offered some interpretation.  According to a footnote in a 2004 case, “the term has been defined as meaning that either or both spouses are unable or unwilling to cohabit and there are no prospects for reconciliation”. But is that any less vague?

Even the paperwork required to file to initiate the divorce is vague. Here are the blanks that must be filled in on the sworn affidavit:

“Petitioners state that our marriage has suffered an irretrievable breakdown which began on or about [date].  In particular, our marriage has suffered an irretrievable breakdown because:__________________________” 

The form gives no other guidance as to what types of reasons should be used to fill in the blank.

Perhaps even more confusing is that, in Massachusetts, there are two different types of divorce based upon “irretrievable breakdown”. The first type is filed accompanied by the certificate described above. This means that BOTH parties have agreed that there is an “irretrievable breakdown” and want to move forward with the court approving provisions for any children, property division, alimony, etc.

The second type is not accompanied by the sworn affidavit because only one of the parties thinks that the marriage has had an irretrievable breakdown. In that case, the party who filed must wait six months after filing the complaint for the court to take any action.

Most would say that an uncontested divorce filed by both parties based upon irretrievable breakdown of the marriage is the simplest way to end a marriage. But maybe not. Based upon the vague information provided by the law, even the simplest paperwork may not meet the court’s requirements, leading to perhaps unnecessary complications for the spouses and even any children who may be involved.

Before trying to navigate the vague, yet complicated, divorce procedures in Massachusetts, consider a consultation with an attorney with experience in these important personal decisions.

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