New D.C. Law Removes Waiting Period for Divorce, Empowering Survivors of Domestic Violence

Washington, D.C. – A recent change to divorce laws in D.C. aims to provide more support for survivors of domestic violence by eliminating the waiting period before divorce. Advocates for victims of domestic violence pushed for this change, arguing that it will help those looking to separate from an abusive spouse. Previously, D.C. law required couples to live separately for six months, with mutual and voluntary agreement, before they could file for divorce. If one party contested the divorce, the couple had to remain married for a year. However, under the new law, any spouse can file for divorce at any time, without a waiting period.

D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who introduced the bill, explained that the previous waiting period was illogical and could keep someone chained to their abuser against their will. She described the reform as a common-sense solution that empowers individuals to move forward with their lives and provides additional support to domestic violence survivors. The bill was unanimously approved by the D.C. Council in November 2023 and took effect on January 26, 2024.

In addition to removing the waiting period, the new law also mandates that judges consider a history of domestic violence, including physical, emotional, and financial abuse, when making decisions about alimony and property distribution. It explicitly allows judges to grant exclusive use of a family home to either spouse during litigation. Legal Aid DC’s supervising attorney, Meridel Bulle-Vu, highlighted the financial relief and stability this provision will bring to domestic violence survivors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, intimate partner violence costs female victims $103,767 over their lifetime and $23,414 for male victims.

Bulle-Vu emphasized the significance of this change for her clients, explaining that they no longer have to wait to seek a divorce. The previous waiting period was a significant barrier for many survivors of domestic violence trying to leave abusive partners. Legal Aid DC worked closely with Nadeau on the legislation, drawing from their experience helping survivors obtain civil protection orders and navigate the lengthy divorce process.

The previous waiting period, established in the 1970s, was criticized as outdated and paternalistic by Bulle-Vu. She noted that the new law requires the person seeking the divorce to have lived in the District for at least six months. The change has brought relief to many clients, who can now file for divorce and move forward with their lives. Bulle-Vu stressed the immense impact this reform will have, both emotionally and financially, on those affected by domestic violence.

The new law has already made a difference in the lives of survivors. One massage therapist, who requested anonymity, shared her experience of seeking a divorce from her abuser. The process was daunting and left her feeling trapped. With the expedited process now in place, she hopes it will help other domestic violence survivors escape similar situations. Another health care administrator, also choosing to remain anonymous, faced a year-long wait to initiate divorce proceedings because her spouse denied her request. The drawn-out process took a toll on her mental and emotional well-being.

These personal stories highlight the importance of the law change and the relief it provides for domestic violence survivors. The elimination of the waiting period ensures that individuals can move on from toxic relationships and live peaceful lives. By addressing the need for immediate action and support, this new law in D.C. contributes to the overall well-being and empowerment of survivors of domestic violence.