Bills easing divorce process for domestic violence victims introduced to lawmakers

Posted April 04, 2013, at 6:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Helping domestic violence victims break free from abusive marriages was the focus of two measures introduced to a legislative committee Thursday by Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville.

Lachowicz, who has more than two decades of experience in social work, said LD 869, An Act to Relax Divorce Requirements for Victims of Domestic Violence, and LD 871, An Act to Protect Victims of Domestic Violence by Waiving their Filing Fees in Divorce Actions, both resulted from requests from constituents. She presented the bills on Thursday to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

LD 869 would allow a person to begin divorce proceedings in Maine without meeting the six-month residency requirement that is currently in state law. Lachowicz testified that there are many domestic violence victims who flee their spouses and come to Maine and that granting them a prompt divorce is one more way to protect them.

“Last year when I ran for office, I knocked on the door of a woman who shared her story with me and she could not do the one thing she thought was important for the safety of herself and her children,” said Lachowicz. “She had not yet lived in Maine for six months but she could get a Maine license, she could vote and she could get a job. If she lives here she ought to be able to file for a divorce.”

Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel for the Maine Judicial Branch, said most states require a residency waiting period for a person seeking a divorce. The length of those waiting periods ranges from Alaska and Washington, which are the only two states that have no waiting period, to a dozen states that require one year of residency, according to Lynch. Maine is among 26 states that have a six-month waiting period. Lynch said the reason for these waiting periods have to do with legal jurisdiction, the lack of which can cause problems on appeals and limit what a judge can do in a case.

“Jurisdictional requirements arise out of a strong public policy that there should be some relationship between the divorcing parties and the state,” Lynch said. “Without proper jurisdiction, a divorce that was granted can be collaterally attacked in another state on the grounds that the court granting the divorce lacked the proper jurisdiction.”

Lynch and committee member Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, raised concerns that eliminating the waiting period could make Maine a “divorce mill” where couples come for quick divorces.

“If Maine had no prior residency requirement, Maine might attract litigants from around the country, and especially from all the other states in the Northeast,” said Lynch. “Even Nevada, well known for its ‘drive-through’ divorces, has a six-week residency requirement.”

Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said marriage violence victims do frequently flee to another state and that delays in legal actions or divorces in some cases create heightened risks for victims and their families.

“Rapid resolution of family matters does not resolve the risk of domestic violence but it can set clear ground rules that support safety and set the structure for recovery,” Colpitts said. “A fast track to a resolution of family matters can increase safety for that subgroup of victims who come home to Maine or who flee here for safety.”

Lachowicz also presented another bill that would help domestic violence victims by waiving Maine’s $120 divorce fee, though reception to that bill was tepid because Maine courts regularly reduce or waive divorce fees for low-income applicants.

“One of the biggest factors in a family where you’re being abused is money,” Lachowicz said. “The thing that keeps them there the most is how are they going to afford to live? They don’t want anyone to harm their children. They don’t want to be harmed anymore. But they also don’t want to be homeless. They don’t want their kids to go hungry.”

Colpitts said waiving divorce fees is a rare area where the coalition does not support special treatment for domestic violence victims.

“We take resource issues seriously and you will hear MCEDV testifying consistently on keeping economic benefits available to low-income survivors or abuse,” Colpitts said. “However, divorce fees are already related to income and can be waived for economic reasons.”

Lynch, who said she hadn’t looked into the data, estimated that the bill could cost the state up to $100,000 a year, which currently flows into the General Fund.

Both bills have yet to be scheduled for work sessions, after which they would move on for consideration by the full Legislature.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 1-866-834-4357, TRS 1-800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

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