Divorce Business Sparked Tourism in Nevada

Posted: 10 February, 2024

Nevada is known as the state to get a quick divorce.  This is not by accident.  The change in laws to allow for a quick divorce was a huge driver for tourism in the Great Depression years.  It worked then, and continues to work today.

1931 was a big year for Nevada. Gambling was legalized in the state and became a draw for tourists. Too boost tourism, Nevada lawmakers make two big changes to divorce laws.   First, they removed the requirement to prove adultery or abandonment for divorce.   All other states required a spouse to prove of these to be granted a divorce.   Nevada allowed a spouse to claim extreme physical or mental cruelty.   Nevada judges were not strict on the “extreme” portion.  Showing mental or physical cruelty of any level would suffice.

Grounds Were Applied Loosely

Nevada technically allowed divorced on nine grounds: impotence, adultery, desertion, conviction of a felony, habitual drunkenness, neglect to provide the common necessities of life, insanity, living apart for three years, and extreme mental cruelty. Officials, however, did not require proof, and the grounds were applied loosely.

For some spouses, Nevada was the easy choice. In many other states, adultery was the only legal grounds for divorce, and couples faced one-year residency requirements. Some states did not allow divorce at all. In Nevada, all you had to do was relax for six weeks and then go before a judge for a relatively painless marriage dissolution that took just minutes.

Residency Period Was Reduced

The second change the lawmakers made was reducing the residency period.   One spouse was required to live in Nevada for at least six months to file a divorce.   Most states were even longer than six month.  Nevada reduced the period from six months to six weeks.   After the change, couples (or one spouse) only needed to live in Nevada for a little more than a month and didn’t need to prove adultery or abandonment.  Read Where to File a Divorce to learn more about filing in Nevada.

In an era in which many married women did not work outside the home, the majority of the people who fulfilled the residency requirements were women.  The men stayed home to keep their jobs. While a six-month residency requirement would have been a financial hardship for many of those seeking divorce, six weeks was doable.

These two legal changes caused many spouses to take a trip to Nevada to get divorced.

Divorce Changes Brought Tourists

“It was the Great Depression,” said researcher and historical consultant Mella Harmon told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  Nevada was struggling for revenue like most other states.   Harmon had studied divorce in Nevada for nearly 20 years. “The Nevada Legislature was looking to do whatever it could to spur the economy.  Divorce tourism helped Nevada through the Depression.”

While these couples waited there six weeks in Nevada,  they stayed in Nevada hotels, the ate in Nevada restaurants, and they gambled in Nevada casinos.   Las Vegas was still a sleepy town in 1931.  Boulder City had more residents than Las Vegas.  Couples who came to Las Vegas would live  in dude ranches like the ones still at Tule Springs.   These lodges were the predecessors of the hotels along what is now the dazzling Las Vegas strip.

In Reno, which had a bigger population than Las Vegas at the time, couples would wait in the more traditional hotels  attached to the casinos.   The lodges and hotels would advertise the divorce friendly laws in California and Utah papers.

Divorce Business Was Booming

Though the United States was going through the Depression, cities in Nevada were building hotels, attorneys were swimming in clients, and the dude ranches were hiring cowboys to help divorcees ride horses during their extended vacations.

The divorce business took off in Nevada.  From 1931 to 1970, more than 325,000 marriages came to an end in Reno, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and other popular Nevada locales.  In 1946, there were 19,000 divorces filed.  That is more divorces than filed  2010.

Famous Nevada Divorces

Nevada, and Reno in particular, became known for divorces. Walter Winchell, a famous journalist and gossip columnist, called these trips “Reno-vations.” Celebrity divorces drew news bureaus to Reno to cover the ends of famous marriages.

  • Famed crooner Frank Sinatra became a Reno resident in 1951, using his six-week residency for a singing engagement. He spent his free time with his soon-to-be second wife, Ava Gardner.
  • Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor picked up a marriage license on May 12, 1959, in Las Vegas immediately after Fisher’s divorce from Debbie Reynolds was granted. They used the license to get married just as quickly. But Fisher and Taylor would part after only a few years, and this time Taylor would be the one in Las Vegas getting a divorce.
  • Comedian Carol Burnett was granted a divorce from actor Don Saroyan on September 25, 1962, in Las Vegas on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty. The couple married in 1955 but had been separated since 1959.

Even fictional characters have gone to Nevada to get divorced:

  • Betty Draper, a “Mad Men” character, made the trip to Reno with her child and her planned next husband between seasons of the popular TV show.
  • In a story from the height of the Nevada divorce area, the 1939 film “Charlie Chan in Reno” focused on a woman at a Reno hotel accused of murdering her almost-ex’s almost-wife, who was also in Reno to get a divorce.

Divorce Business Started to Slow

Nevada’s hold on the divorce business could only last so long.   By 1970, other states began to enact looser residency requirements. Laws allowing  “no-fault” divorces arrived. People no longer had to move out of their own state to get a divorce in Nevada.

Today, Nevada is known more for marriages than divorces, and wedding chapels have long outpaced dude ranches meant for short-term residents in unhappy marriages.  Nevada is host to thousands of famous and not-so-famous chapels where couples can tie the knot, in wedding options featuring Elvis impersonators, Star Trek settings, or drive-thru alters.   Wedding tourism brings $2 billion a year to the economy of Southern Nevada.

Whether getting couples hitched, or unhitched, Nevada has a history of being involved in marriages.  Under the glitz and glamour of Nevada many couples have started their glorious journey together or ended their venture into the “happily ever after”.