Domestic violence is violent or aggressive behavior that occurs between spouses or other members of the family.  The behavior can be anything from emotional and mental abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, or economic abuse when one spouse withholds basic living expenses or necessities from the other. The term “domestic violence” can be used interchangeably with the terms spousal abuse, domestic abuse, family violence, or intimate partner violence. 

Are There Legal Consequences For Domestic Violence in a Divorce?

In general, legal consequences for domestic abuse can be criminal charges or civil lawsuit fines and fees.  Within a divorce, however, the loss of child custody and/or visitation rights and an equitable distribution of property in favor of the non-abusing spouse may also occur.

Can I Automatically get a Divorce If I am a Victim of Domestic Violence?

It depends on the state. State laws vary, but some are considered at-fault states while others are considered no-fault states. Spousal abuse will always be a factor in every state when it comes to determining child custody and visitation issues, but not every state allows abuse to speed up the finalization of a divorce. With that said, Pennsylvania recently enacted a law that would speed up a divorce if domestic abuse is proven.

A no-fault state means that the state does not care why the parties are divorcing and does not require a spouse to prove fault on the part of the other spouse in order to obtain the divorce.  For example, in a no-fault state a common ground for divorce could be listed as an “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage” or “irreconcilable differences.” The divorce, at some point in time, will be granted regardless of any reason a spouse has for wanting a divorce, including spousal abuse.  Currently, 17 states and D.C. have pure no-fault laws in place which don’t give filers an option to cast any blame.

Every state has some form of these no-fault laws for a divorce.  However, there are some states that require mutual consent in order to file under no-fault grounds and if consent isn’t possible, the filer is forced to choose one of the states “at-fault” grounds.  This can be anything from imprisonment of one spouse, disability, or adultery, to name a few, but most do not have domestic violence as a grounds for divorce.  

What Rights Do I Have During a Divorce If I am a Victim of Domestic Violence?

The first step when filing for divorce as a spousal abuse victim is to establish a protective order to limit all contact from the abusing spouse.  Although state laws vary, most will allow the victimized spouse to remain in the marital home and, if children are involved, award temporary custody (sometimes even full permanent custody) to the victimized spouse. Visitation may even be limited to supervised visits pending completion of therapy and/or counseling by the abusive spouse. 

In terms of property division, it’s going to depend on state law and how much your state considers abusive behavior when determining how to divide marital assets.  In most cases, courts will especially consider domestic violence as it relates to the dissipation of marital assets and will, therefore, award more to the victim if the abusive spouse has been purposefully disposing of assets to control the victimized spouse, for example.

Waiting Periods Can be Lengthy

Once a divorce is filed, a waiting period is usually required before a divorce can be finalized. Waiting periods vary from state to state and can be anywhere from 30 days to 2 years.  Additionally, mediation is often a requirement before a divorce order will be granted, making it all the more difficult for a domestic violence victim to get any kind of quick solution. 

States like Pennsylvania have laws in place that allow a divorce to be finalized within 90 days of filing if there is documented domestic violence, whereas states such as Mississippi have 12 different grounds for divorce, none of which include domestic violence.  Maryland allows a bypass of the law requiring couples to live apart for one-year before filing for divorce if a domestic violence process has commenced.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you’ve been a victim of domestic violence you may need to seek legal advice from an attorney that has experience with both spousal abuse and divorce.  A divorce lawyer can help you sort through the intricacies of the divorce process, as well as making sure the divorce is finalized as quickly as your state’s laws allow.