What Are the Steps to Divorce for an Abusive Marriage?

By Beverly Bird

Divorce is a process governed by your state’s laws so the legal steps are the same regardless of why you want to end your marriage. If you’re a victim of abuse, the most important steps you take come before you file for divorce. Freeing yourself from a dangerous marriage requires extra planning and involves special considerations.

Escape Plan

When you begin the divorce process, your attorney needs certain paperwork to create a documented picture of your marriage. Therefore, your first step should be to gather copies of this paperwork. If you see anything around the house that pertains to your family’s finances, make copies. This might include credit card bills, bank statements, or your spouse’s pay stubs. Don’t keep the copies at home after you've made them. Ask a trusted friend to hold onto them until you need them. Establish a means for people to contact you that is not known to your spouse. For example, get a post office box in your name and a disposable cell phone with prepaid minutes. Open a bank account in your name, but make sure the statements don’t come to your home. Have them sent to your post office box.

Find a Lawyer

Find a divorce lawyer who has experience with domestic violence issues. A friend might tell you she knows a shark of an attorney who always fights to the finish, but this may not be what you need. You might be better off with someone who is compassionate regarding your situation and specifically familiar with the domestic violence laws in your state. If you don’t have access to money to pay an attorney, this won’t stop you from having one. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. They can put you in touch with an attorney in your area who will volunteer her services or work with you for payment. You can also call your local bar association for the same information or your local domestic violence shelter. The legal aid services in most states offer free help to victims of domestic violence.


After you find an attorney, she can tell you how to best go about separating from your spouse. She may be able to apply for a restraining order for you. If the court grants it, the judge will most likely order your spouse to leave your home. However, if your lawyer thinks your spouse can present a good case that he has not hurt you, she might advise you to leave instead. The downside of a failed restraining order is that your spouse could return home, angrier than ever because of the attempt you've made to remove him from the home. A qualified attorney can tell you if you might be better off moving in with family or friends for a while. If you’re in immediate danger, you can call the police and have them escort you to a shelter. Take your children with you.

Filing for Divorce

After you’ve safely separated from your spouse, your lawyer can file for divorce and have him served with divorce papers. Depending on your jurisdiction, you might be able to file for divorce on grounds of abuse or cruelty. This could ultimately affect issues of alimony, property division and custody. If you live in a no-fault state that does not recognize fault grounds, your lawyer will know how to bring the issue of your abuse to the attention of the court anyway. No-fault laws generally mean that you don’t have to accuse your spouse of wrongdoing to get a divorce. They don’t mean that a judge will give custody to an abusive parent or deprive you of support while you get back on your feet. Many states require mediation as part of the divorce process. Your lawyer can have this requirement waived if your marriage was abusive. You’ll need the help and know-how of a professional to deal with these issues so you might not want to take the chance of trying to represent yourself.