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Cruelty is any act of inflicting unnecessary physical or mental pain on living creatures. 

Some common uses of the term “cruelty” in a legal sense include:

  • In the context of a ground for fault-based divorce, cases such as this one from Texas explain the meaning of cruelty as “the willful, persistent infliction of unnecessary suffering, whether in realization or apprehension, whether of mind or body, to such an extent as to render cohabitation dangerous and unendurable.” Since most states now have some version of no-fault divorce, cruelty is rarely used as a ground for divorce.
  • Cruelty to animals generally means a malicious or criminally negligent act that causes an animal pain, suffering, or death.
  • Cruelty to children, also called child abuse, is the willful infliction of pain and suffering on children through physical, sexual, or emotional mistreatment or neglect. 

[Last updated in June of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]