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Q: I have been a victim of abuse for the past 13 years. I have nine police reports of domestic violence incidents, both physical and mental, and many other unreported incidents. I believe my husband wanted to murder me. This is my second attempt to divorce and escape from my abusive husband. The divorce laws have made it a big challenge for me because I have an income advantage over my abuser. I have to pay his rent, health insurance and living expenses because of something called “the status quo law.” Why does this exist and how is this fair? I don’t want to even think of any other woman and her children having to go through so much hardship in an attempt to save their life. – Anonymous
A: Yikes. This is definitely an awful and unfair scenario for a victim of domestic violence who wants to escape an abusive partner. While not a law exactly, family court judges in many states strive to uphold the “status quo” during a divorce, meaning that however the couple balanced financial obligations before filing for divorce, things should stay relatively equal until the divorce is final.
You could see how this law would protect, say, a stay-at-home spouse who was dependent on the income of their working partner. That stay-at-home spouse would still be able to afford basic living expenses until things like spousal or child support were decided in court.
However, you can also see how an abusive partner who doesn’t earn as much as their spouse might use this guideline to have more power and control over their partner. They may threaten to drag divorce proceedings out indefinitely in order to continue to live off of their partner’s dime. This is one facet of post-separation legal abuse that an abuser might use to scare a partner into acquiescing to the demands of an abuser, whatever those might be.
I spoke with the Hon. Catherine Fitzpatrick, JSC, a retired family court judge and current family law mediator in New Jersey, where you [the letter-writer] lives. She says whether or not a judge chooses to uphold the status quo varies from judge to judge, but many family courts will adhere to this type of standard.
As for domestic violence charges, these are tried separately from divorce proceedings in a hearing all their own, which is why you likely weren’t allowed to bring those allegations up in your divorce case when it came to financial support.
“Until the divorce is finalized, judges often maintain the status quo…[they’re] waiting until they hear all the testimony and see evidence of what the marital lifestyle was like,” Fitzpatrick says. The only way to recoup that money would be in the final hearing if there is evidence the spouse who’s receiving financial support lied about his income.
Other than that, domestic violence or not, the “breadwinner” spouse will likely be ordered to continue to pay the bills and expenses of their spouse until things are finalized.
“The court wants to make sure the house doesn’t go into foreclosure. The court has to protect the assets,” says Fitpatrick.
But what if the abuser refuses to leave the shared home and an order of protection is denied? What happens if the survivor doesn’t feel safe returning home, but is still ordered to pay the bills, like you were, something that could potentially be a barrier to escape for survivors?
“You can go out and get an apartment but his lawyer is going to file a temporary support motion and say she moved out and the mortgage payment is due. The mortgage has to be paid.”
Does she have any other options? I asked Fitzpatrick.
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“None that I can think of,” she says.
Alas, all hope is not lost. If a survivor has the means to do so, they can file a personal injury claim against an abusive spouse, which I know you already did (DomesticShelters.org was able to speak to the survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous). In New Jersey, this is called a Tevis claim; in other states, it will likely just be referred to as a personal injury claim. This claim would be filed in conjunction with one’s divorce alleging domestic violence has occurred and physical and/or emotional damages occurred.
If this claim is successful, the survivor could receive monetary damages from their spouse to compensate them for any money they had to spend as a result of injuries and possibly even punitive damages. A Tevis claim can also be used as leverage in the divorce—something the survivor would agree to dismiss in exchange for equitable distribution of assets. It’s best to consult with a lawyer who has experience in domestic violence cases before filing a personal injury claim.
For those considering or facing a divorce, there are certain steps you can take to help protect yourself. See, “After Abuse, a High-Priced Divorce Is the Next Trauma” for more info.
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