Currently, most states either have no-fault divorce laws where no blame can be placed upon either spouse or laws that require proof of fault that can draw out the length of the divorce process. Prior to the passage of the bill, Pennsylvania’s no-fault law required mutual consent for the divorce to proceed—if one party refused to give consent, the other party could be forced to wait up to 2 years before the divorce could be finalized by a judge. The state does have a fault-based divorce option as well, but that process can be expensive and takes longer if there is no agreement.
Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 12 (HB 12) into law, effectively changing the way courts will handle divorce cases involving domestic violence. Essentially, the victimized spouse will be treated the same as a couple that has mutually consented to a divorce—presuming consent from an abusive spouse—which means there will be a minimum 90-day (versus 2-year) waiting period before finalization. Additionally, the law will prevent any court-ordered counseling that can typically be required and lengthen the process.
The bill came from abuse victim advocates, who urged legislators to change the law. In 2014, Pennsylvania alone had over 32,000 citizens filing protective orders for domestic violence. Pennsylvania’s law allowed an abusive spouse to drag out a divorce up to 2 years, which only encouraged a continued pattern of abuse. Even if the abuse isn’t physical, prolonged waiting times during the divorce process can leave room for further emotional and mental abuse.
No Fault and At-Fault Laws Play a Major Role
Every state has laws on the books that allow a party to file for a no-fault divorce (think “irreconcilable differences” or “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage”). Some are considered purely no-fault while others are called no-fault but require consent from both parties. The latter is where Pennsylvania’s law falls and what ultimately led to the push for new legislation.
Currently, 17 states and D.C. have purely no-fault laws. Most of the time, these courts don’t care why you’re getting divorced. Pure no-fault laws don’t require the filing spouse to prove fault on behalf of the other spouse. This prevents any issues that may prolong a divorce because one spouse disagrees with the divorce entirely.
Although some may consider domestic abuse in terms of property distribution, most will only consider it in circumstances that the domestic abuse caused any economic fault of marital assets. Despite the fact that most courts can’t legally consider abuse as a factor, it definitely provides a certain degree of shock value in favor of an abuse victim and, ultimately, that could always sway a judge’s decision in favor of an abuse victim on a property award.
The remaining states are similar to Pennsylvania and these types of laws can lead to a breeding ground for continued patterns of abuse. Requiring abuse victims to 1) definitely prove a pattern of abuse or 2) obtain consent from an abusive partner is unreasonable. Abusive interactions are 70 times more likely to result when a spouse is leaving an abusive spouse—the change couldn’t come soon enough.
The good news is that every state, regardless of varying law, will take domestic abuse into consideration when deciding things like child custody and visitation.
Will Others Follow Pennsylvania’s lead?
Senate Bill 2418 was recently struck down in Mississippi. That law would have added domestic abuse as grounds for an at-fault divorce, which is not currently listed within any of the 12 statutory grounds. Republican Senator Sally Doty plans to reintroduce the bill in the next session in the hopes that it will pass next time with a few changes.
Most state laws regarding consequences for domestic violence pertain to criminal charges, protections for child custody and visitation, and orders of protection. However, many states do not lay out specific abuse laws when it comes to divorce and domestic violence.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner—that number likely would only increase when mental and emotional abuse is included in the equation. With Pennsylvania taking the lead, others with stricter at-fault laws may be soon to follow.