“When can I get divorced?” I am often asked this question by married domestic violence survivors who meet me for the first time at the Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Intake Center, where Legal Aid attorneys are present four days a week to provide legal advice and assistance to individuals applying for Civil Protection Orders (CPOs) against their abusers. For many survivors of intimate partner violence, obtaining legal protection from abuse through a CPO is an important step towards securing their safety and independence. But, for those who are married to their batterers, it is the granting of a divorce - the severing of all legal and financial ties to one’s spouse - that represents and provides a more complete sense of freedom from abuse.
Unfortunately, the legal process for divorcing an abusive spouse is rarely swift or straightforward. A recent New York Times article explored the challenges typically encountered by domestic violence survivors seeking to divorce their abusers. Recounting the experiences of several low-income immigrant women navigating the New York court system, the article highlighted common obstacles that delay divorce proceedings for domestic violence survivors, including the prohibitive cost of hiring a private divorce attorney and the shortage of legal services lawyers who handle divorce cases for free; the time-consuming, costly, and sometimes dangerous struggle to locate spouses who are evading service of process; and the deliberate prolonging of divorce proceedings by abusers who use the legal system as another means to exert power and control over their spouses. As a result, it can take several years, extraordinary perseverance, and thousands of dollars for a domestic violence survivor to finally obtain a divorce from his or her abuser.
Here in the District, our own clients face similar difficulties when attempting to divorce their abusive spouses. While Legal Aid is able to assist a limited number of domestic violence survivors in divorce proceedings, there are few sources of free legal representation for these often complex and time-intensive cases, particularly where debt, property, support, and custody are all at issue. As domestic violence is so often accompanied by financial abuse, coercion, and secrecy, a number of our clients discover for the first time during divorce proceedings that their abusive spouses have also been racking up joint debt or hiding marital assets. Divorce litigation can also be emotionally draining and re-traumatizing for survivors, requiring them to negotiate directly with their abusers, stand beside them in court, and face them while testifying about painful memories of abuse.
Yet, when I advise survivors about the steps they must take and the hurdles they must surmount in order to get divorced, what usually disappoints and worries them the most about this process is the fact that it cannot be initiated right away. Under D.C. Code § 16-904(a), spouses must live separately and apart from each other for a certain period of time before filing for divorce. If a married couple’s decision to separate is mutual and voluntary, spouses need only live apart from each other for six months before filing for divorce. In contrast, when the decision to end a marriage is unilateral – as is often the case for our clients who are fleeing from abusive marriages – divorce proceedings cannot be initiated until the parties have lived apart for one full year.
This separation requirement forces domestic violence survivors to wait even longer before starting the lengthy process of legally disentangling themselves from their abusive spouses. Keeping survivors in a state of limbo for a year before they can file for divorce can also expose them to danger and continue the cycle of violence. Abusers can be unrelenting in their efforts to pressure their spouses into reconciling during the separation period, and even the briefest reconciliation between spouses can reset the clock on the statutory waiting period. While the separation requirement is not unique to D.C. law, in other jurisdictions, such as Maryland, waiting periods do not apply where domestic violence has occurred within the marriage.
As an attorney committed to helping domestic violence survivors establish safe and independent lives free from abuse, it is my hope that more attorneys expand their pro bono practice to take on these challenging, yet deeply meaningful cases. Moreover, we must work towards revising our current divorce laws to ensure that they are not blind towards the existence of domestic violence and the unique ways in which its dynamics can complicate and prolong divorce proceedings.