Domestic Violence and Divorce

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What is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is not just hitting. Abuse can take many forms. It may include things like:

  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Emotional abuse
  • Isolation
  • Control of money
  • Threats
  • Stalking
  • Intimidation

Abusers use these behaviors to try to gain and keep power and control over another person.

Safety Concerns

Warning! Domestic violence can get worse when a relationship ends. It is important for you to take steps to be safe before you start a divorce. Your local domestic violence agency can help. To find your local agency, see Community Services. You can also contact the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

How Can A Domestic Violence Agency Help Me?

You do not have to go to a shelter to get help.

Domestic violence agencies can help you think about your safety and support options during your divorce. These options could include:

  • Making a safety plan
  • Having a counselor-advocate attend court hearings with you
  • Finding a safe place to stay
  • Helping you get a Personal Protection Order (PPO)
  • Helping you keep your location confidential

Personal Protection Orders

If you are married to someone who has hurt you or threatened to hurt you, you may want to ask a judge for a PPO. You can use our Do-It-Yourself Personal Protection Order (PPO) tool to do this. You can ask a judge to forbid your spouse from doing specific things like:

  • Coming to your home
  • Hurting you
  • Threatening you
  • Contacting you

A PPO isn’t a substitute for a child custody decision in a divorce or custody case. But your PPO may limit contact between your spouse and your children if the facts in your case support it. This could apply if your spouse has threatened or abused your children, or if your spouse’s contact with the children puts you at risk of harm.

To learn more about PPOs, read Overview of Personal Protection Orders. For specific information about getting a PPO against your spouse, read Domestic Relationship Personal Protection Orders.

How Can Domestic Violence Affect My Divorce?

Domestic violence is serious. It can affect many issues in your divorce, like custody, parenting time, and property division. If your spouse has been verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive to you, you should consider talking to a lawyer.

Your local legal aid office or other lawyer in your area may be able to help you. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers and legal services in your area. Your local domestic violence agency may also be able to help you find a lawyer.

Custody and Parenting Time

Domestic violence is one of twelve factors the judge must consider when making custody and parenting time decisions in your divorce. The judge must consider domestic violence even if your spouse was not violent towards the children, and even if the children didn't see the violence. It is important to let the judge know about the violence and what you're afraid of.

An abusive spouse may still get parenting time or some form of custody. The judge must consider joint custody if either parent asks for it. The judge will have to decide whether you and the other parent can make parenting decisions together. If your spouse has been abusive, it may be hard to communicate and make decisions together. This may be one reason to ask for sole custody.

To learn more about how a judge makes custody and parenting time decisions, read Custody and Parenting Time

If you can't find a lawyer and you are deciding what type of parenting time arrangements you want to ask for, review the Parenting Time Guideline created by the Friend of the Court Bureau. The Guideline recommends a specific parenting time schedule instead of a schedule that provides for "reasonable parenting time." A specific, detailed schedule should greatly reduce the need for you to communicate or negotiate with the abuser. Read the full section on Safety Concerns in the Guideline for other helpful information.

Sometimes a judge will order parenting time supervised by a neutral third party. Consider asking for supervised parenting time if:

  • You're worried about your safety;
  • You're worried about your children’s safety; or
  • The other parent has threatened to keep your children from you.

The court will appoint the supervisor, but you may want to provide ideas for possible supervisors. Examples include:

  • A visitation center
  • A domestic violence agency
  • A grandparent
  • Another relative
  • A friend

Parenting time may also be safer for you if you exchange your children in a public place. Some communities have supervised visitation centers that may supervise visits or exchanges.

If a court order gives your spouse custody or parenting time, you must follow the order unless the judge changes it or another court order (like a PPO) forbids it.

Parental Kidnapping

If your spouse has been violent or threatening, you may be concerned that they will take or keep your children without your permission. Maybe your spouse has threatened to take your children or has kept them from you before.

In most cases, it is not kidnapping for a parent to take or keep their child. A parent can only be charged with kidnapping if they do this in violation of a valid custody order. If you do not have a court order giving you custody, your spouse cannot be charged with parental kidnapping. The same is true for you.

If you take your children to a domestic violence shelter or elsewhere to protect them from an immediate threat of physical or mental harm, you have a defense against parental kidnapping. This is true even if you need to violate a custody order to take them to the shelter or other safe place.

If you are afraid your spouse will take or keep your children without your permission, you might be able to get an emergency or temporary custody order. If you are concerned your spouse might take your children out of the country, you may be able to get the judge to hold your children’s passports. Visit the U.S. Department of State website to learn more about what you can do in this situation.

If you are concerned about your spouse taking, keeping, or hiding your children from you, you may want to consider talking to a lawyer who specializes in divorce and custody matters. If you have low income, you may qualify for free legal services. Whether you have low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area. Even if you do not qualify for free legal help there may be a lawyer referral service in your area, and you may be eligible for a free or low-cost consultation.

Property Division

Your marital property will be divided as part of your divorce. Many controlling or abusive people control money and property in a marriage. If you think your spouse owns things you don’t know about, or that your spouse may try to hide or get rid of property, you should consider hiring a lawyer. A lawyer may be able to find hidden assets through a legal process called discovery. A lawyer can also help you get temporary orders to stop your spouse from getting rid of property during your divorce. If you have low income you may qualify for free legal services. Whether you have low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area.

To learn more about how property is divided in divorce, read Divorce Basics: Dividing Your Property and Debt.

Spousal Support (Alimony)

Michigan is a “no fault” divorce state, which means you don’t have to prove your spouse did something wrong to get a divorce. However, the judge can still consider fault to decide whether to award spousal support. If you want to ask for spousal support in your divorce, contact a lawyer. Proving that spousal support should be ordered is not easy. To learn more, read Spousal Support (Alimony) in a Nutshell.


Mediation is a process where a neutral person (the mediator) meets with both spouses to help them settle issues in their divorce. Mediation may be used in your divorce to help you and your spouse agree on property division, child custody, parenting time, and other issues. Mediation can be helpful when both parties are able to ask for what they want without being afraid or intimidated. If one person is used to being in control and making all the decisions, mediation usually doesn’t work well. Abusive people often use threats, fear, and control to get their way. This goes against the goal of reaching an agreement that is fair to both of you. If your spouse has been abusive, mediation may not be a good idea. To learn more about mediation, read Mediation and Other Forms of Settlement.

If you are not comfortable with mediation because of domestic violence but the judge orders it, you can ask for the case to be removed from mediation by filing a motion. The Michigan One Court of Justice website has the Motion to Remove Case from Mediation form. When you fill out the form, leave the "Notice of Hearing" and "Certificate of Mailing" sections blank. File the motion within 14 days after you get notice of the order that assigns you to mediation. When you file the motion, ask the court clerk for a hearing date and fill that information into the "Notice of Hearing" section. The hearing must be within 14 days after you file the motion. You will need to serve a copy of the motion on your spouse.  To serve the motion, fill out the "Certificate of Mailing" section at the bottom of the form and make two copies. Mail a copy to your spouse (or to their attorney, if they have one). Before your hearing date, file the form that you signed and dated with the court to show them that you sent a copy to your spouse. Keep one copy for your records.

Finding a Lawyer

You might decide you want a lawyer to help you. If you have low income, you may qualify for free legal services. Whether you have a low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area. If you are not able to get free legal services but can’t afford high legal fees, consider hiring a lawyer for part of your case instead of the whole thing. This is called limited scope representation. To learn more, read Limited Scope Representation (LSR): A More Affordable Way to Hire a Lawyer. To find a limited scope lawyer, follow this link to the State Bar of Michigan lawyer directory. This link lists lawyers who offer limited scope representation. You can narrow the results to lawyers in your area by typing in your county, city, or zip code at the top of the page. You can also narrow the results by topic by entering the kind of lawyer you need (divorce, estate, etc.) at the top of the page. 

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