October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence affects 1 and in 3 women and 1 in 4 men according to the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Domestic violence can include physical violence or threats of violence between members of a family or household (codified as “family violence” under the law), as well as less-visible forms of abuse, like emotional, financial, and psychological abuse. Most of these cases will never be investigated by the police or be successfully prosecuted. However, when a survivor of an abusive relationship is considering or undergoing a divorce or child custody suit, the alleged abuse can have far-reaching effects in his or her family law case.
Safety planning is one of the first steps that a victim of domestic violence should take before leaving an abusive relationship. Safety planning is simply implementing a strategy to avoid dangerous situations and maximize physical and emotional well being during the time a victim chooses to leave the abusive relationship. Counselors and domestic violence advocates can be instrumental in working alongside attorneys when creating a safety plan. Victims of domestic violence can seek help from the Courts by applying for Temporary Ex Parte Protective Orders, Temporary Restraining Orders, and other temporary relief against their abusers.
Timing can often be of the essence when a partner is seeking to leave an abusive relationship. If family violence has occurred, Texas courts can provide expedited relief, such as entering emergency temporary orders, exercising emergency jurisdiction over children, and waiving the mandatory waiting period to grant a divorce.
The utmost priority in all family law matters is the best interest of the children. In a child custody suit, a finding of family violence by one parent against another rebuts the presumption that parents should be “joint managing conservators” of children. The court must consider, instead, granting sole managing conservatorship to the victim spouse, which gives that spouse almost exclusive decision-making rights regarding the children. Family violence can also be grounds to restrict or deny a parent’s access and visitation periods with their children. If a prior custody order has already been entered, a later finding of family violence can be grounds to modify the earlier order to protect the children’s safety.
Texas courts can award financial relief to victims of family violence during a divorce suit. The Court may find that a spouse is guilty of cruel treatment and award the victim spouse a greater share of the marital assets. Family violence is also grounds for a court to grant post-divorce spousal maintenance to a spouse even if the other statutory qualifications have not been met. Additionally, in some proceedings, a court may order attorney’s fees and court costs to be paid by a spouse who has committed family violence.
If you have a divorce or child custody matter involving domestic violence, the stakes are critically high. Be sure to discuss with your experienced family law attorney the best strategies to protect you and your children, both now and in the future.