The Law of Equitable Distribution: When Is Domestic Violence More Than Just a Factor in Divorce?
Imagine you are married. After many years there are problems in your marriage. Some of these issues are beyond your control. You find out that your spouse is cheating on you. You plan to come home from work and confront your spouse about their infidelities. You even begin to think about the divorce process, confronting the concerns raised in your mind. I’ll be okay. I have a great career, I have worked my entire life, and I have saved. I will be okay.
That night you approach your spouse. After an argument breaks out, you tell your spouse that you are leaving them. But they get angry. They get so enraged that they attack you in the basement of your marital home. “You’re never going to go anywhere [,]” they say, strangling you. “Now you are going to die.”
In 2011, Laura Panek’s husband attacked her, tied a rope around her neck, and attempted to strangle her. Miraculously, she survived the near-death ordeal. Laura’s husband pled guilty to first-degree strangulation and was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Soon after, she filed for divorce. Laura’s attempt for justice was met by months of litigation, during which she was forced to relive her harrowing ordeal in civil court. And in the end, justice was not served. Concerning the parties’ marital assets, the judge awarded Laura’s abuser-spouse a significant portion of her pension fund. Therefore, after retiring in 2019, Laura was forced to make monthly pension distributions to her ex-husband while he continued serving his prison sentence for attempting to kill her.
Domestic violence comes in many shapes and sizes, devastating all types of communities regardless of age, sex, or economic status. It includes “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control” by an intimate partner, such as a spouse. Unfortunately, Laura’s story is not unique— 20% of marriages involve domestic violence. In the United States, 25% of women and 10% of men will experience domestic violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime. In addition to the physical and emotional impact, victims also face financial devastation. Medical costs directly related to intimate partner violence are estimated at more than $4 billion per year, and additional economic hardships are attributable to the loss of work survivors face.