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Separation and Divorce When There is Domestic Violence

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed October 2023

"Domestic violence" is when a family member or intimate partner abuses another family member, household, or intimate partner. There are many different forms of abuse. However, Massachusetts law usually defines domestic violence or abuse as when someone:

  • harms you physically,
  • tries to harm you physically,
  • makes you afraid that serious physical harm is going to happen to you, or
  • threatens, pressures, or forces you to have sex.

This article is Chapter 8 of Where Do We Go from Here?, a self-help “know your rights” manual designed to provide community legal education to victims and survivors of intimate partner violence, shelter and other intimate partner violence service provider staff, and other non-lawyers who have questions about getting out of and staying out of abusive situations. 

"Where Do We Go From Here?" was produced by Western Massachusetts Legal Services (now Community Legal Aid).

Produced by an AmeriCorps Project of Western Massachusetts Legal Services updated and revised Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed August 2015

The main difference between separation and divorce is that divorce ends your marriage. Separation means you are still married, but you do not live with your spouse. You have to go to court to be divorced. You do not have to go to court to be separated.

What is a divorce?

divorce icon courtesy of graphicadvocacy.org

A divorce is a judgment of the Probate and Family Court that ends your marriage.
Divorce judgments also include:

If you and your spouse can agree about all of these things, you can write up an agreement and ask the judge to approve it.  If you can agree on some things but not on others, you will have a chance to tell the judge. The judge will decide the things that you and your spouse cannot agree on. She will review your agreements to be sure they are fair.  If you cannot agree on any of these things, the judge will decide all of them at a trial. You and your spouse will both get a chance to testify. You will also be able to show the court documents and have witnesses testify.   

Do I have to get a divorce if I want to live apart from my spouse?

No. You do not have to get a divorce if you want to live apart. You can stay married and live in different places. You do not have to go to court to be “legally separated” in Massachusetts. It is legal to live apart from your spouse.

You still have to make decisions about money, property, and child custody and support.  If you and your spouse cannot agree, you can ask the judge to decide these things in a Complaint for Separate Support or Complaint for Support.

What is the difference between a Judgment of Divorce and a Judgment of Separate Support?

The main difference between a Judgment of Divorce and a Judgment of Separate Support is that a Judgment of Divorce ends the marriage. A Judgment of Separate Support does not end the marriage.

A Judgment of Separate Support can include orders of support for you, child support, custody, parenting time, and visitation. It can also decide who gets to stay in your home and what happens to things like bank accounts and personal property. You can get this judgment and still stay legally married.

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