For the majority of the 20th century, Reno, Nevada served as the divorce capital of the world. The state offered easy divorce requirements at a time when most states discouraged divorce through complex legal barriers. Nevada’s comparatively lax requirements for divorce demonstrated the early evolution to normality of divorce evident today.
Modern divorce stems from ancient Rome. Romans bore liberal views of divorce when compared to the strict marital laws of England that are most evident in chaotic attempts by English ruler Henry the VIII to be released from marriage. While King Henry and his many wives received annulments rather than divorces, 1,500 years earlier Romans allowed men and women to seek divorce. English and Roman precedents bore lasting influence on world perspectives of ending marital commitments.
Hundreds of years after King Henry’s marital discords, a country emerged across the sea. America held a flourishing population and new marital laws. American divorce was bred by Roman and English influences but took innovative turns. In the early 20th century, American states held varied qualifications for divorce. Many states held extensive requirements to prevent divorce, New York being the most extreme. New York demanded evidence of adultery for grounds for divorce. Others states like Nevada offered comparative ease of nuptial dissolution. One Colorado newspaper noted Nevada’s lenient laws on their front page, “extreme stinginess is considered a sufficient cause for divorce in Nevada court.”
Interstate influences were paramount in developing the divorce haven. Nevada’s lenient divorce law drew from Utah’s divorce traditions. The neighboring Utah territory held liberal qualifications like “incompatibility” as grounds for divorce. These lenient divorce requirements accommodated women trying to leave unhappy polygamous situations. However, so liberal was Utah’s divorce law, Nevada dropped Utah’s no-fault divorce in their adaptation of divorce law. Although Utah offered more liberal divorces, Nevada welcomed more out of state divorcees who could obtain residency more easily. This low residency requirement fostered the migratory divorce trade and opened Nevada’s lenient divorces to unhappy couples all over the country.
The territory’s first legislature met and established foundational laws between October and November of 1861 in the upper room of the Warm Springs Hotel. The hotel was located in the recently established legislative city of Carson City which would become the state capital. When the state of Nevada emerged in 1864, the divorce laws bore minimal changes from those established in the territory’s 1861 legislature.
Nevada’s liberal grounds for divorce drew divorce tourism which offered economic growth for the western territory. In offering a unique ease of dissolution to marriage, Nevada found economic growth in providing a home to the divorce tourists. Nevada encouraged a divorce migration by pairing liberal grounds for divorce with short residency requirements to allow people from other states to benefit from the state’s liberal divorce laws. With easier divorcements and quick residency, many unhappy wives and husbands came flocking to the city of Reno which teemed with housing and cultural accommodations for divorcees.