Housing and Property Rights of Domestic Abuse Victims

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   Domestic abuse is a terrible reality that many people face daily. Even those of us who do not have personal experience with it will very likely be called upon at some point to assist someone who is a victim of abuse.

   Besides the obvious physical and emotional trauma, domestic abuse invariably raises many significant moral, spiritual, and practical legal questions and implications. Wise, Christ-centered counsel is of utmost importance in wrestling with the Biblical, moral and emotional questions (“Can I leave my spouse?” “Should we get divorced?” “Can we reconcile?”), but the practical questions (“Where should I stay?” “Can I change the locks on my house?” “Can I terminate my lease?”) can also be very important in ensuring that a person remains safe while they search for a more permanent solution. There are multiple legal avenues for protecting domestic abuse victims, and a basic knowledge of these systems can be very helpful in assisting a brother or sister through what can be the most difficult time in their life. 

   To start, it may be helpful to clarify the legal definition of domestic abuse. It is perhaps a common misconception that abuse is only “domestic” if it is committed between spouses. Wisconsin law, however, defines domestic abuse as intentional infliction of pain or injury, impairment of physical condition, damage to property, stalking, or non-consensual sexual contact, committed by a spouse, a former spouse, parent, child, a person in a dating relationship, a person in a live-in relationship, or by an in-home caregiver.

   The temporary restraining order and injunction is a very important legal mechanism for protecting domestic abuse victims. To obtain a domestic abuse temporary restraining order, a person must file a petition with the court showing that they are in imminent danger of physical harm, and requesting the court make a protective order (often no contact with the victim or her residence). This petition will be reviewed promptly by a judge. If the judge grants the petition, the requested order will remain in effect for 14 days. At the 14 day mark — if requested in the original petition — the court may hold a hearing to determine whether it should order an injunction, which is essentially a longer lasting protective order. A protective injunction may be granted for up to 4 years, and may grant a variety of protections to the victim. 

   Most people think of a restraining order or injunction as a simple “no contact” order. Indeed, “no contact” provisions are very commonly sought under a restraining order. However, these orders can (and should be) tailored to each individual situation to allow the greatest and most appropriate protection for the victim’s unique situation. Regarding housing, courts often order the offending person to avoid the victim’s residence, and may even direct a sheriff to accompany and assist the victim in moving back into their home if they have been displaced by the abuser. Provisions like these can be very helpful for a person who has left their home in fear of injury and doesn’t have a place to go. Regarding personal property, a court may also order that a victims’ personal property (including pets) be returned to them. 

   Domestic abuse victims who live in rental properties can often become confused about how to handle their lease. For these questions, Wisconsin has created the Safe Housing Act. The Safe Housing Act creates multiple methods for renters and landlords to handle domestic abuse issues, including 1) allowing a person who is in fear of imminent physical harm to terminate their lease with minimal (if any) penalties; 2) allowing a landlord to terminate a persons’ lease if they are causing imminent threat of harm to other tenants; and 3) allowing a person to request that their apartment locks be changed. In each of these scenarios, the victim tenant must provide the landlord with a copy of the restraining order, injunction, or other document (such as the abuser’s bail report if they were charged criminally) ordering the abuser to not contact the victim and/or avoid the residence. Landlords who fail to follow this statute may face serious penalties. 

   In more severe cases, a domestic abuse victim who fears for their safety may wish to keep their address confidential. The Safe At Home program administered by the Wisconsin Department of Justice is an address confidentiality program that is designed to help in these situations. If a person applies for and is eligible for this program, the Department of Justice will assign a substitute address for their home, work, or school, and all mail sent to this address will be forwarded to their actual address free of charge.

   If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, please do not hesitate to contact an attorney and discuss your legal options. While these practical programs may not solve the underlying problems surrounding domestic abuse, they can be very helpful in promoting safety, stability, and peace of mind in this difficult time. 

Attorney Gabe Arevalo
McLario, Helm, Bertling & Spiegel, S.C.
N88 W16783 Main St.
Menomonee Falls, WI 53051-2890
(262) 251-4210

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