DC Bill Would Enhance Safety for Survivors of Domestic Violence Filing for Divorce


Legal Aid welcomes Councilmember Nadeau’s introduction of the Grounds for Divorce, Legal Separation, and Annulment Amendment Act of 2023 This bill provides District residents, especially domestic violence survivors, with much needed immediate access to divorce proceedings so that they can obtain critical relief for their safety and security.

Under the current law, people who mutually wish to get divorced must be separated for six months before they can even file a case to begin the process. If one party opposes the divorce, they must be separated for an entire year before filing. Similarly, someone who wishes to file a legal separation case but does not have the consent of the other party must live apart for an entire year before filing. These waiting periods prevent domestic violence survivors from being able to immediately leave abusive relationships and from obtaining crucial interim legal relief to stay safe, such as financial support or housing.

The Grounds for Divorce, Legal Separation, and Annulment Amendment Act of 2023 eliminates these dangerous waiting periods for filing for and obtaining a divorce or legal separation in the District and provides access to additional forms of necessary relief that will help to protect survivors of domestic violence who are separating from an abusive spouse. Originally introduced as "Elaine’s Law," for a D.C. resident who found herself bound by law to her abuser, and then defending her assets from him in her divorce settlement, Nadeau reintroduced the bill this Council Period to address feedback since the 2019 hearing.

This bill would allow a person wishing to obtain a divorce to file at any time and only requires them to show that they no longer wish to be married. Individuals seeking a legal separation may also file at any time and would only need to show that they intend to pursue a separate life from their spouse without obtaining a divorce. This would allow abused spouses to commence proceedings to dissolve their marriage immediately.

Leaving is just the first step, however, and the proposed bill goes further to provide protections for survivors once they leave. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the average financial impact of domestic violence over a survivor’s lifetime is over $100,000 for women and $23,000 for men.[1] Under the new law, judges would be able to consider incidents of domestic violence when determining alimony as well as property and debt distribution that could allow a survivor to establish physical and financial independence from their abuser. The bill also proposes that, during the litigation, a judge can award the exclusive use and possession of property, which further expands the possible relief for survivors fleeing violence.

“This legislation eliminates unnecessary and oppressive waiting periods for divorce that are particularly harmful to survivors of domestic violence,” Nadeau said. “Grappling with abuse is hard enough and the recovery is long. District law should not be the thing holding back people from leaving abusive relationships.”

Legal Aid represents low-income survivors of domestic violence who would benefit greatly from this bill. We therefore support the Grounds for Divorce, Legal Separation, and Annulment Amendment Act of 2023, which would abolish the harmful mandatory divorce waiting periods that force survivors to stay in unsafe marriages, and which would expand access to other critical relief needed to leave an abusive relationship.

Legal Aid is glad to work with Councilmember Brianne Nadeau to bring justice to people in the District who need to seek immediate separation from abusive marriages.


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2019/05/24/understanding-the-financial-impact-of-domestic-violence/?sh=6ab3062c41d1

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