In 2001, Elizabeth Freels found herself at the sharp end of Mississippi’s stringent divorce laws. She wanted to divorce her husband, David, but because Mississippi is one of only two states that still does not have a “no-fault” divorce law — South Dakota is the other — she had two options for doing so, neither of which was viable to her. Freels could either have provided one of 12 grounds outlined in the state’s onerous law, along with thorough evidence to support it, or she could have persuaded her husband to not only agree to the divorce, but to also agree to every term of the settlement, including custody and finances. Since she could do neither, Freels found herself trapped. Lacking resources and with her children in mind, she remained with her husband, who was adamantly opposed to the idea of a divorce, for another four years after deciding she wanted to separate. Speaking to USA Today, Freels described situation as an “under the same roof, but a War of the Roses type of deal.” She said her husband declared, “I will not give you a divorce until the day you die. If I can’t have you, no one else will.”
Years later, Freels moved to Clinton, Mississippi, and filed for divorce, only to have her husband refuse it once again. He didn’t want to lose her or the children and wouldn’t agree to the initial child support payment — $300 per month – requested of him. Speaking to USA Today he explained he was “practically homeless” and unemployed.
Finally, Freels’ lawyers admitted to her that pretty much her only option would be to move out of the state if she wanted to get a divorce. So, after her youngest child left for college, nearly 15 years after she initially set out to divorce her husband, Freels moved to Washington state where a divorce was finally granted. When looking over the divorce papers, she told USA Today, the judge questioned the June 2005 date and asked, “Don’t you mean 2015?” Once he saw that she’d moved from Mississippi he said, “Oh, that explains it.”
Lawmakers are currently trying to reform Mississippi’s antiquated divorce laws, which currently make the divorce process — as this case demonstrates — both costly and timely. But such reforms have failed in the past as they have come up against significant opposition from the religious lobby, who object to making it any easier to get a divorce. The sanctity of marriage, they argue, must be preserved.
But proponents of reform argue that the law as it stands is putting lives at risk. According to legal expert, Deborah Bell, dean of the University of Mississippi Law School, ”Under Mississippi law, a spouse who condones, or forgives marital fault can’t get a divorce unless the conduct happens again,” Bell said. “In the context of domestic violence, a survivor who leaves home — perhaps to go to a shelter — then returns home has ‘condoned’ the violence. She has lost her ground for divorce until the violence happens again. This puts a survivor in the untenable position of needing to remain in the marriage — and in danger — to secure grounds for divorce.”
Two laws regarding divorce reform legislation — one of which specifically seeks to protect victims of domestic violence — have passed the state Senate and are pending in the House. Both have been pushed by Republican lawyers who hope that, despite the very conservative, religious nature of the state, they might be able to get these incremental reforms passed into law. Similar measures have however been defeated previously.
Read the full story at USA Today.