JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In 2001, Elizabeth Freels knew her marriage of seven years was over, and she wanted a divorce.
Her husband, David, felt otherwise. Elizabeth said he told her, “I will not give you a divorce until the day you die. If I can’t have you, no one else will.”
And in Mississippi, one of only two states without a true “no-fault divorce” law, a spouse who doesn’t want a divorce can delay one for a long time. In the Freels’ case, it was more than a decade.
There’s an effort in the Legislature to make small reforms to Mississippi divorce law. But previous efforts have failed, and a measure to create a “no-fault” divorce based on length of separation has already been watered down this session.
Getting a divorce in Mississippi is difficult and expensive. Lawmakers and the religious lobby have been reluctant to make it easier or cheaper, mainly in efforts to uphold the institution and sanctity of marriage. Yet, Mississippistill ranks continually near the top of states in its divorce rate.
Experts say Mississippi’s antiquated divorce laws, little changed over a century, put low-income people at a disadvantage, particularly homemakers who usually are without resources for a lengthy court battle.
Elizabeth Freels said her lawyer explained she would have to prove one of 12 grounds in the state’s law —and provide “clear and convincing evidence” — or get her husband to agree to a divorce, including every single term of custody and finances.
“Even in Saudi Arabia you can get a divorce if you want one,” she said. “Here, you’re at the mercy of another person.”
Lacking resources and concerned about stability for the couple’s three children, Freels lived with her husband in Brookhaven another four years. She described this as “a ‘War of the Roses’ type of deal.”
In 2005, Elizabeth Freels moved to Clinton and filed for divorce. She said her husband wasn’t working or paying child support, and refused to agree to sell their house, so she “incurred tremendous expense.”
“I didn’t want to lose her, or the children,” David Freels said recently. “. If she would have had grounds for a divorce, I would have gracefully bowed my head and given her a divorce.”
David Freels said his ex-wife was initially requesting $300 a month per child in support. He said he was “practically homeless” and unemployed. “I refused to give her a divorce on irreconcilable differences because she never tried to reconcile.”
After years of a standoff, Elizabeth Freels said her attorney “pretty much told me the only solution is to move out of state.”
Elizabeth Freels said she waited until her youngest child was off to college and then moved to Washington, a state that allows a plaintiff to file and obtain a divorce in 90 days.
“I hired a lawyer just in case,” she said. “She said when the judge looked at the papers and saw June of 2005, he said, ‘Don’t you mean 2015?’ Then he saw I had moved from Mississippi and said, ‘Oh, that explains it.'”
David Freels was served with papers from Washington last summer. He said he could have contested the divorce, but instead he let the 90 days expire, and the divorce became final.
Mississippi’s law doesn’t specify domestic abuse as grounds for divorce, and its provision for cruelty as a ground requires “clear and convincing” proof of “habitual cruelty.”
“Victims of domestic violence suffer from our current divorce system,” said Sandy Middleton, director of the Center for Violence Prevention. “Frequently when women flee their abusive partners, they are unemployed and don’t have any access to justice. Domestic violence offenders will use the court to continue to abuse. Our divorcelaw is the hammer they use to do it.”
Middleton said victims of abuse often “give up” when they learn how difficult and expensive a divorce will be, and they stay in the abusive marriage.
Deborah Bell, dean of the University of Mississippi Law School, is considered a foremost expert on Mississippifamily and divorce law. Her treatise, “Bell on Mississippi Family Law,” is used by attorneys and chancery judges.
“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.”
Bell has recommended Mississippi “adopt a middle ground between short-term, no-fault divorce and the current fault-based system.” She said this could be done by creating a new ground based on long-term separation. “This would at least provide an eventual route to divorce for one whose spouse will not agree,” Bell said.
Republican Sens. Sally Doty of Brookhaven, Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula and Sean Tindell of Gulfport — all attorneys — and others are pushing two bills.
One, by Doty, would add “including domestic abuse” to the “cruel and inhuman treatment” grounds for divorce. A bill she sponsored last year to add “domestic violence” as grounds died the last day of the session.
“I want to make clear that domestic violence is unacceptable, and we changed it to say domestic abuse to cover a few more things, such as social isolation and financial exploitation,” Doty said. “By domestic abuse, it’s not necessarily a conviction for violence, but you can put on your evidence of abuse. It opens it up a little bit.”
Tindell has a bill that would create “bona fide separation” of two or more years as grounds for divorce — a step toward a true no-fault provision.
Similar measures have died in the past, including last year.
Doty said problems caused by Mississippi’s divorce laws and the politics of trying to change them “is a real hair ball.”
“We are a very conservative, religious state, and no one wants to be seen as being for divorce,” Doty said. “I am not for divorce at all. I am divorced, and it is the great failure and tragedy of my life, I feel. But the reality is, people get divorced.”
Doty said to get the separation-as-grounds bill passed out of committee and before the full Senate, it was amended to apply only to couples who have lived apart two years and have no children younger than 20.
“I don’t think Mississippi is ready to take the step for true no-fault divorce,” Doty said.
The American Family Association last year sent an alert message to its members to call lawmakers when they were considering adding separation as grounds for divorce language to Doty’s domestic violence bill. The message said: “No-fault divorce has potentially destructive implications for Mississippi families and society, and the state should be encouraging stable families, not making it easier for married spouses to terminate their vows … No-fault divorce sets aside any notion of obligation or duty toward children in the family.”