Divorce Business Sparked Tourism in Nevada

Posted: 5 July, 2023

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 continued to work for decades later.

1931 was a big year for Nevada. Gambling was legalized in the state and became a draw for tourists. Construction on Hoover Dam brought in workers and their families to add to the economy.   And, more liberal divorce laws were passed to allow a divorce after only six weeks of residency and with little reasoning behind the filing.   Other states required longer residency periods and special reasons to file for a divorce.  This legal change caused many unhappy spouses to take a trip to Nevada.

While they waited the six weeks, many of these “migratory” divorce seekers lived in dude ranches amid shared bathrooms, and community-style dining. In Las Vegas, these buildings were the predecessors of the hotels along what is now the dazzling Las Vegas strip.

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.

Divorce Changes Brought Tourists

The state, which had already been doing pretty well in the divorce business, dropped the residency requirement from six months to six weeks to induce more visitors, researcher and historical consultant Mella Harmon told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“It was the Great Depression,” said Harmon, who has studied divorce in Nevada for nearly 20 years. “The Nevada Legislature was looking to do whatever it could to spur the economy. Divorce sort of carried Nevada through the Depression.”

The divorce business took off in Nevada, where in its heyday, 1946, there were 19,000 divorces filed.  This is more divorces than in 2010, despite a population 17 times higher. From 1931 to 1970, more than 325,000 marriages came to an end in Reno, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and other popular Nevada locales.

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.

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. For Nevada, it meant more tourism dollars spent on long, leisurely vacations.

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.

Famous Nevada Divorces

  • Barbara Vucanovich, Nevada’s first woman in Congress, settled in Reno for a divorce in 1949 and decided to stay, marrying twice (she was widowed once) after her arrival. In 1982, she became the first woman elected to Congress in Nevada. Vucanovich died in 2013 at the age of 91.
  • 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 divorce:

  • 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 as long as other states restricted couples who were in failing marriages. By 1970, other states began to enact looser residency requirements. Laws allowing simple “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”.