Does Domestic Violence Affect Your Divorce?

Woman and man experiencing domestic violence divorce

Leaving an abusive spouse takes courage and a strong support system. After years (possibly decades) of manipulation and control, you need to know there is someone you can trust to stand by you and help you through a domestic violence divorce. That includes understanding how domestic violence affects your divorce legally and emotionally.

What is Domestic Violence in Maryland?

Maryland domestic violence law defines abuse as:

  • An act that causes serious bodily harm
  • An act that puts a person in fear of imminent serious bodily harm
  • Assault
  • Rape or sexual offenses (including attempts)
  • False imprisonment (kidnapping)
  • Stalking
  • Child abuse (but not reasonable corporal punishment)

For abuse to be domestic violence, the person eligible for relief must be a:

  • Current or former spouse
  • Roommate
  • Relative by blood, marriage, or adoption
  • Parent, stepparent, child, or stepchild who lived with the person for at least 90 days in the last year
  • Vulnerable adult
  • Co-parent

Domestic violence divorce actions most often focus on abuse against a spouse or child. Domestic violence can target any gender and can include intimate partner violence between same-sex couples.

Protective Orders Shield Spouses, Children from Further Abuse

If you are worried about your safety as you escape your abusive relationship, you can talk to your family law attorney about seeking a Protective Order or Peace Order. These are civil orders that prevent your abuser from continuing their patterns of violent behavior. They can be obtained any time, 24/7, even before you file for divorce. Your divorce attorney can help you make the case that you and your children need protection, and can seek an order preventing your abuser from:

  • Abusing you further
  • Contacting you at home, school, or your job
  • Visiting your child’s school
  • Coming to a family member’s home or place where you are staying
  • Returning to your shared home
  • Taking your children away by granting you temporary custody

A Temporary Protective Order can be entered right away. Then, the court will set a hearing, usually within about a week, to allow you and your spouse to make your cases about whether or not the abuse occurred. A Final Protective Order can do all the things listed above, as well as:

  • Set temporary visitation with your children
  • Award emergency family maintenance payments
  • Give you possession of a shared car
  • Send you, your children, or your abuser to counseling
  • Force your abuser to surrender their firearms
  • Make your abuser pay the filing fees and court costs

If you are concerned about safety, it is wise to have a Temporary or Final Protective Order in place before you separate from your spouse. Coordinate with your divorce attorney and the local police about where you will be when your spouse receives service of the order. This will help protect you and your children from retaliation if your spouse takes the news poorly.

Cruelty or Vicious Conduct as Grounds for a Fault-Based Divorce

In Maryland, most spouses seeking an absolute divorce have to be separated for at least one year before they can file their complaint. But Maryland’s fault-based divorce allows you to skip the waiting period if you have been the victim of “cruelty or excessively vicious conduct.” This includes both mental and physical abuse, controlling behavior, isolation, taunting, threats, and other forms of domestic violence.

However, except in cases of particularly severe injury, most “cruel treatment” must continue for an extended period of time. One physical assault generally won’t be grounds for a fault-based divorce. Instead, if you choose not to wait, you should be prepared to testify about the extent and nature of your abuser’s violent acts against you or your children.

Domestic Violence and Child Custody

If either spouse says there has been domestic violence in the home, Maryland judges must determine whether that abuse occurred before awarding custody. If the court finds domestic violence did occur, then the abuser will not be awarded custody or unsupervised visitation unless he or she can convince the judge there is no likelihood of future abuse. Instead, the court will impose visitation restrictions, limiting when and how an abusive parent can have contact with their children, by:

  • Expediting the case
  • Ordering third-party supervision by a professional
  • Ordering the abusive parent to pay for supervised visitation costs
  • Prohibiting all contact between an abusive parent and his or her children, although this is an extreme and uncommon result

If you believe your spouse poses a threat to your children’s health or welfare, be sure to discuss possible visitation restrictions with your divorce attorney. That way, you can advocate for safe exchanges and protections to protect your children from further harm.

Applying Custody Factors to an Abusive Parent

In addition to specific findings of abuse, the court will also consider several factors in awarding custody based on your children’s best interest:

  • Who has been their primary caregiver
  • Each parent’s physical and psychological fitness
  • Each parent’s character and reputation
  • The existing custodial arrangement and each parent’s desires
  • Maintenance of existing family relationships
  • The child’s preference
  • Financial considerations
  • The child’s age, health, and gender
  • Geographic considerations
  • How long a parent and child have been separated
  • A history of abandonment or surrender of the child
  • Parents’ religious views affecting the child’s physical or emotional well-being

While domestic violence doesn’t specifically appear among these factors, the behaviors and mindsets that make up domestic violence often relate to several factors considered by the court. You and your attorney can work together to tell a story of how your spouse’s domestic violence has affected all areas of your child’s life to strengthen your argument that you should be awarded custody.

Does Spousal Abuse Affect Your Alimony or Property Division?

Maryland judges also consider a variety of factors in awarding alimony (post-judgment spousal support) and dividing the family’s property. Domestic violence, whether or not it is the reason for the break-up of the marriage may be one of them. In requesting alimony, you and your divorce lawyer can describe how your spouse’s abusive and controlling behaviors kept you from working, going to school, or becoming self-supportive. Their behavior also may have affected your standard of living during the marriage and be the reason you are seeking divorce. While surviving domestic violence does not automatically mean you will receive post-judgment support, it can make an argument for alimony more persuasive.

Domestic violence’s effect on property distribution may be less obvious. Often, it does not play a significant role unless your spouse destroyed family property as part of their abuse. However, the reasons for the break-up of the marriage are a factor that the Court will consider in the division of marital property. In recent years, Maryland law has changed to allow parties to present evidence of a Protective Order or Peace Order in their divorce action. If the judge ordered your spouse to vacate your shared home or gave you use of a shared car in a protective order, you can use that order to advocate for a similar property award in your divorce.

The Emotional Effects of Domestic Violence Divorce

Domestic violence doesn’t only affect the way judges view your divorce case. It can also impact your own ability to interact with your spouse, negotiate a potential settlement, and present your case to the court. Domestic violence survivors experience a variety of different emotional, mental, and physical effects from the trauma they experience. Long after bruises and cuts heal, the emotional injuries caused by years of dominance and control can interfere with your ability to stand up for yourself and demand fair treatment.

Develop a Strong Support Team

Any divorce is hard. A domestic violence divorce can be crushing. It is essential that you do not go through it alone. You need a support team beyond your divorce attorney to help you deal with the emotional effects of divorce and to help you process the feelings you have about your spouse, your children, and the divorce process. Ideally, your support team should include:

  • Therapists (for you and your children)
  • A domestic violence social worker or advocate (who can help with practical issues that arise)
  • Family members or close friends (although keep in mind these communications are not confidential)
  • Someone to take you in if it is unsafe to be at home
  • A family lawyer with experience handling domestic violence cases

Check in with your support team often, even when things are going well. Encourage them to reach out if they haven’t heard from you. Ask for help whenever you need it. Many abusers use isolation as a tool in controlling their spouses. That is because when a domestic violence survivor receives support from family and friends, it is much easier for them to see their spouse’s behavior as abuse. Supported survivors are also much more likely to be successful in leaving the relationship.

Mediation Doesn’t Always Serve Domestic Violence Survivors

Nearly all Maryland divorces involving children are referred to mediation. The goal of mediation is to help the parties negotiate a resolution without having to go through the time and expense of trial. However, one of the few exceptions to mandatory mediation referrals applies to domestic violence divorces.

The abuser and his or her survivor almost never have equal bargaining power. The patterns of dominance and control you learned over the course of your marriage will be on full display as you try to advocate for your needs post-divorce. Some domestic violence survivors can mediate with the help of a trauma-informed divorce attorney and a mediator who understands the situation. However, for many others, mediation is simply inappropriate. If you attempt mediation as a domestic violence survivor, it is essential that you tell the professionals in the room if you are feeling intimidated or threatened before you agree to anything.

Trauma Affects Your Ability to Testify

Serious domestic violence can literally affect your brain. Trauma survivors’ brains often record traumatic memories differently. You may connect incidents based on the way they made you feel, rather than when they happened. You may simply not remember details at all.

This can make testifying, particularly on cross-examination, exceedingly difficult for trauma survivors. When you can’t recall an abusive incident or have difficulty saying when it happened, your abuser’s lawyer will try to claim it makes you a less credible witness.

Still, an abuse survivor’s personal testimony is essential to a domestic violence divorce case. You and your attorney should work ahead of time to put your story in order and commit it to memory. Your family law team can help you anchor your memory of events to other things that happened around the same time (like a child’s birthday or a vacation) so that you will be better prepared to respond to questions about when, where, and how the abuse occurred.

At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our family law attorneys know how hard it can be to leave an abusive relationship. We want to advocate on your behalf and ensure you have the support you need to remove yourself from an unsafe environment. We will review your matter thoroughly, and guide you through the process with your safety in mind, helping you to take back your autonomy and move on to a healthier future. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with an attorney.

Categories: Divorce