What to Do Legally When Your Spouse Abandons You

About Brette Sember, JD | Divorce.com

By Brette Sember, JD Updated May 03, 2024


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If your spouse abandons you, it has important implications for your future and your divorce. It can affect how you file for divorce, how you serve them with divorce, and how the issues in your divorce will be decided.

If your spouse has abandoned you, there are important steps to take. Find out what you need to know about abandonment and how it may affect your marriage.

Key Takeaways

  • Legal abandonment has four requirements that must all be met.
  • Abandonment is a ground for divorce in many states.
  • Abandonment can affect child custody.
  • If your spouse abandons you, there are essential steps to take immediately to protect yourself and your assets.
  • Once you have initially protected yourself, there are additional steps to take as you move towards divorce.

What Is Spousal Abandonment?

The legal definition of spousal abandonment is a situation in which one spouse:

  • Leaves or moves out of the marital residence
  • Does so without justification
  • Leaves without the other spouse agreeing to it
  • Does so with the intent that this is the end of the relationship

Simply leaving or moving out is not enough. There has to be intent, a lack of justification, and a lack of agreement between the spouses for it to qualify as legal abandonment.

While it's possible to feel abandoned at various points throughout your marriage, you must have all four requirements listed above to meet the legal abandonment standard.

Constructive abandonment is another kind of legal abandonment and happens when one spouse does something to prevent the other from living in the marital home, like changing the locks.

In that case, the spouse who changes the locks is the one doing the abandoning if they do it with intent to end the marriage, without justification, and without the other spouse agreeing.

How Spousal Abandonment Affects Marriage and Divorce Proceedings

Abandonment has serious implications for marriage and plays an important role in divorce. The most significant impact is on the grounds for divorce and child custody. If your spouse abandons you and can't be located, it can impact other aspects of the divorce.

Grounds for Divorce

The grounds for divorce are the legal reasons for the divorce. All states have no-fault divorce grounds available, in which neither spouse is legally blamed for the end of the marriage.

Usually, to be able to use abandonment as a grounds for divorce, your spouse must have been gone for a minimum period of time, such as six months or one year, without returning to live with you.

Many states offer other grounds for divorce, and abandonment is one of them. If you use abandonment as the grounds for your divorce, one of two things must happen:

  • Your spouse must agree the abandonment occurred, or
  • You must prove at a trial your spouse legally abandoned you

Service of Process

If you file for divorce, your spouse must be legally served with the divorce papers. If your spouse abandoned you and you do not know where they are, this can make it hard to serve them.

Most states have an option that allows you to accomplish service by publishing a notice in a newspaper, but usually, you must get permission from the court and show that you attempted to find them.

Uncontested Divorce

If your spouse abandoned you, you cannot locate them, and they do not respond to attempts to serve them or to service by publication, then the divorce moves ahead without them and is uncontested. This means they have no say in what happens, and the court hears only your point of view and makes a decision based on that alone.


Abandonment does not directly impact custody, although if the children are with you and your spouse leaves, you have an advantage since the children are residing with you, and judges prefer to maintain the status quo.

Leaving the children behind can impact the absent parents' custody bid, making it seem as if the children are not their top priority. If your spouse cannot be located, it is impossible for them to have custody or visitation since they are not present to be part of the child's life.

It's important to note that if a parent moves out and doesn't meet the legal standard of abandonment for the grounds for the divorce, the fact that they no longer live with the child can still have an impact on custody.

Property Division

If your spouse abandoned you and left you with the marital residence and all of its associated bills to handle on your own, it likely was a financial strain for you.

In that situation, you may be given not only your half (in community property states) or equitable share (in equitable distribution states) of marital assets but also compensation for these marital financial responsibilities you had to take on.

Immediate Steps to Take

There are a few crucial steps to take as soon as possible when you learn your spouse has abandoned you.

Determine Your Spouse's Current Status

If your spouse is simply gone without any discussion, be sure they left voluntarily and that they were not in an accident or have been kidnapped. You can check with family and friends, trace their cell phone, check their social media accounts, or try to locate them in other ways to confirm they are ok.

Document Everything

Keep a detailed record of all events related to the abandonment, including times, dates, and descriptions of any relevant interactions or incidents. This documentation can be crucial in legal proceedings.

Protect Your Finances: Secure Assets and Manage Credit

The next step is to secure your financial health. Talk to an attorney about removing half of the assets from bank accounts for safekeeping (it is essential you do this correctly). Place a hold on all joint credit cards so no further charges can be made.

Open your own bank accounts and credit cards.

Secure Your Home and Vehicle

Change the locks or the code to the marital residence so your spouse cannot enter without your knowledge or permission. Secure your vehicle so your spouse cannot take it or access your keys.

Protect Your Documents and Passwords

Secure important documents like your marriage license, bonds, passport, etc., and change your passwords for all financial and utility accounts and your social media accounts.

Secure Your Mail

Secure your mail and consider having a post office box instead.

Check and Relocate Safe Contents

Check any safe deposit boxes you share or any safes in your home to be sure items are still there and consider moving them elsewhere.

Maintain Utility Control in Your Name

If you live in the marital home, make sure all utility bills are in your name so that your spouse cannot turn them off.

Consult with an Attorney

Consult with an attorney about your state laws and procedures for divorce. If you have children, determine if you need to file for an emergency order for custody.

Subsequent Steps to Take

Once you have taken all the necessary steps to protect yourself, your family, and your finances immediately, there are other steps to take.

  • Get support from family and friends. The divorce process is long and complex, and you need as many people on your side as possible.
  • Seek out counseling. Whether the abandonment came as a surprise or not, having a counselor you can talk to about the situation is helpful. If you have children, they can also benefit from therapy.
  • Decide if you will file for divorce. Then, determine what you will ask for in terms of custody, child support, spousal support, and property division.
  • Get a copy of your credit report and be sure that you opened every account there and that your spouse did not use your information to open accounts you are unaware of. Find more information here: consumer.ftc.gov
  • Try to reach out to your spouse to see if you can work out any of the issues in the divorce together. Doing so will make it easier to file for an online divorce.

Final Thoughts

Having your spouse abandon you is a difficult situation. Take the time to understand the legal implications and what steps you should take to protect yourself.

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