States Contemplate Changes to Divorce Laws from All Angles
Divorce is a complex and emotionally challenging process, often exacerbated by the legal system. In the United States, divorce laws vary from state to state, resulting in arbitrary policies that impede the freedom to dissolve marriages on the parties’ terms.
Since then-California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law in 1969, every state now allows it. However, the divorce process is still far from streamlined due to many factors including state-specific mandatory waiting period requirements, which can impose substantial delays on top of the legal process. In some cases, couples may face months of waiting or even over a year before their divorce can proceed.
According to a recent Time article, in addition to other types of delays, “35 states require a ‘cooling-off’ period where couples must wait a minimum amount of time after filing for their divorce for it to be finalized”; Florida, West Virginia, and Wyoming have a “brief” period of 20 days, while those residing in Massachusetts must wait at least 300 days. Ultimately, waiting periods disproportionately affect women, who make up 85% of domestic violence victims, and can have devastating consequences, particularly for those in financially unstable or abusive relationships. Such delays prolong the emotional and financial strains, hindering individuals’ ability to move on and rebuild their lives.
Recognizing the urgency for change, there have been recent efforts to change some of these requirements for divorce. The article discusses complementary bills in North Carolina that aim to eliminate the state’s mandatory yearlong separation period before divorce, specifically for victims of domestic violence. Similar efforts have been seen in other states, like Virginia, but with little success. And new attacks on no-fault divorce itself are bubbling to the surface; state legislatures in Texas, Nebraska, and Louisiana have proposed overturning no-fault divorce laws, posing further challenges to reform that could fully impede the ability to end a marriage.
There is data that such changes are welcome by users of the legal system. As part of our Court Compass project, IAALS facilitated collaborative sessions involving self-represented litigants and other stakeholders in the legal system. The primary objective was to identify potential solutions to improve the divorce and separation process. Throughout these workshops, it became evident that many participants believed the process was excessively prolonged.
Moreover, numerous individuals found the waiting periods to be unnecessary and perplexing. It is also interesting to note that even participants residing in states with the shortest waiting periods, such as Colorado and Iowa, expressed a desire to shorten or eliminate them altogether. This sentiment was consistent across various locations. Consequently, during the workshops, there was a particular focus on finding ways to streamline the legal process, with several groups proposing the removal of mandatory waiting periods as a specific solution.
IAALS conducted extensive interviews with self-represented litigants in four jurisdictions as part of our Cases Without Counsel project. Said one participant about the delay:
“My husband was abusive—I was hiding for my life, and my children. . . . He was texting me the whole time, threatening me with what I had to do because we were still married. . . . I had survived him for more than ten years and finally found the courage to file for divorce. The delay made me feel like I was in prison. For most women undergoing domestic violence, it takes seven or eight times to finally leave.”
In the end, the divorce process must be simplified and hastened—not further complicated—and there remains significant room for innovation and reform. Promoting a more equitable family law system that prioritizes individual agency, safety, and well-being is especially vital.