Why Missouri currently doesn't allow pregnant women to be legally divorced

A Missouri lawmaker has introduced legislation to clarify that the state’s judges can grant divorces even when one spouse is pregnant.

The notion that they can’t already has sparked anger from people who see it as an antiquated policy that controls women unfairly, possibly trapping them in abusive marriages.

But divorce lawyers say the practice – which goes beyond Missouri – is not meant to be punitive for pregnant women and has some important practical benefits.

Here’s a look at the issue.

CAN PREGNANT WOMEN GET DIVORCED?

The Missouri law on divorce does not specifically bar finalizing divorces for pregnant women, but “whether the wife is pregnant” is one of the eight pieces of information — along with things like where the parties live and when they separated — that's required when someone files for divorce.

Lawyers and advocates say judges in Missouri and some other states do not finalize divorces when a woman in the couple is pregnant. But that doesn't prevent someone from starting the process during a pregnancy.

Nevada Smith, a St. Charles, Missouri, lawyer who handles divorces, said it makes sense that judges will not finalize divorces during a pregnancy because a child would impact the custody and child support terms of a divorce. And divorces usually take months, even in the rare ones without contested issues.

“You kind of need to know if you have two children or if you have three,” he said.

Or a child born with special needs could change the equation, too.

The situation is similar in other states, said Kris Balekian Hayes, a Dallas-based lawyer who handles divorces. She said that Texas judges also don't finalize divorces during a pregnancy of one of the spouses. Exactly which other states have similar practices is hard to determine since it's not spelled out in divorce laws.

Family law courts in many places are clogged with cases already, Hayes said, so it would not help to revisit them after the birth of a child.

“People have complained that it’s so outlandish that we could force someone to stay married to the batterer,” said Hayes, who said that in 25 years of divorce law, she can think of just four cases she handled that involved pregnancy. “It's not intended to be punitive to her but to account for the child’s needs.”

She said the first step in dealing with an abusive relationship is to seek a protective order, not divorce.

WHY IS A MISSOURI LAWMAKER CALLING FOR CHANGES?

Missouri Rep. Ashley Aune, a Democrat who is up for reelection this year, said she wants to use the law to make it clear that divorces can be finalized even during pregnancy.

She said the issue was brought to her attention by a group that serves victims of domestic violence, which she said needed to build an additional facility to house women who have several children, partly because they’re not allowed to get divorced while pregnant.

“If you can keep someone perpetually pregnant, it has devastating consequences,” Aune said in an interview.

Aune said there are also men caught up in the policy, including cases where they’re stuck in a marriage to a wife who is pregnant by another man.

“Life is different in 2024 and I’d like to see our policies keep up with the times,” she said.

WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK FOR THE LEGISLATION?

At a committee hearing in February, everyone who signed up to testify about the measure supported it.

In written testimony, Julie Donelon, the president of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, told lawmakers that the restriction on divorce during pregnancy “creates an unnecessary obstacle and delays a woman's ability to leave an abusive relationship.”

But the path for the legislation isn't clear.

Aune said she's been revising the exact language of the measure.

And she said that even after that's fine-tuned, she's not sure it will advance, in part because she's a Democrat in a legislature dominated by the GOP — even though the sponsors of the bill include Republicans.

Rep. Bill Hardwick, chair of the House Emerging Issues Committee, where Aune's bill was assigned, said he's open to it but unsure whether it will be brought up for a vote.

“That’s kind of a new frontier for some judges and some lawyers,” Hardwick said. "I think we’ve just got to think through that responsibly.”

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Associated Press reporters Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix; Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; and David Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this article.

Geoff Mulvihill, The Associated Press