On July 17 2022, a popular tweet claimed that pregnant women could not obtain divorces in the state of Missouri:
HI HELLO IF YOU ARE PREGNANT YOU CAN'T GET DIVORCED IN MISSOURI
AND NOW YOU CAN'T GET AN ABORTION IN MISSOURI
WHEN WE SAY ABORTION BANS ARE ABOUT DEHUMANIZATION AND CONTROL.https://t.co/ATwMeROOn1
— Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) July 17, 2022
Three days earlier (on July 14 2022) a thread linking to the same Riverfront Times article was shared to Reddit’s r/nottheonion, a subreddit for news articles that could conceivably be mistaken for satire:
An article was published July 13 2022, and the publication is in Missouri. It began with the individual experience involving the divorce of an attorney, segueing into a nuanced explanation of the headline’s claim:
Missouri law states that a petition for divorce must provide eight pieces of information, things like the residence of each party, the date of separation, and, notably, “whether the wife is pregnant.” If the answer is yes, [attorney Danielle] Drake says, “What that practically does is put your case on hold.”
There is a lot of disagreement online about whether pregnant Missouri women can get divorced. The RFT spoke to multiple lawyers who handle divorce proceedings and they all agreed that in Missouri a divorce can’t be finalized if either the petitioner (the person who files for divorce) or the respondent (the other party in the divorce) is pregnant.
Dan Mizell, an attorney in Lebanon, Missouri, who has been practicing law since 1997, says that certain aspects of the divorce can proceed, but everything having to do with custody of the unborn child is frozen in place until birth or a pregnancy-ending event like a miscarriage. The court can issue temporary orders related to things like dividing up property, Mizell says. “But they can’t do a final decree of divorce until she delivers the baby.“
Drake says that this is true even in the case of a divorce that is completely uncontested. “If the couple is not fighting, and they’re just saying, ‘Nope, she’s gonna take the baby and 100 percent of the things’ they still cannot go before a judge and have that finalized until after there’s a baby born,” she says.
In the excerpt, the Riverfront Times article noted that there existed “a lot of disagreement” online about whether pregnancy puts a divorce legally on hold. The story consulted several lawyers, all of whom agreed that in Missouri a divorce cannot be finalized while one of the parties is pregnant.
On July 14 2022, Springfield, Missouri’s Springfield News-Leader published the definitively titled “Pregnant in Missouri and filing for divorce? It can’t be finalized until the child is born.” Again, local reporting based upon the input of Missouri-based lawyers explained that divorces were not granted when one party was pregnant — even in instances of domestic violence:
Can a divorce be finalized in Missouri if one party is pregnant?
The short answer is no.
“If you have a child who is born during the marriage, you need to ascertain the paternity and, most likely, the custody arrangement for that child,” [attorney Doug] Fredrick said. “You can’t just leave that child hanging in a lurch, without a determined father or any kind of custodial arrangement.”
Does the court make exceptions in cases of abuse?
No, the court still cannot grant a divorce if a child is not born, but “There are quite a few avenues or methods for an abused woman to be protected until the baby is born.”
Before both articles were published, fact-checking websites tackled questions of whether pregnant women in Missouri could obtain a divorce. A June 1 2022 aggregated fact check (published by WUSA9, and involving five separate states including Missouri) rated the claim “false.”
However, that “false” label appeared to hinge on the existence of a law, versus the standard legal practice in the five states described. Further, the fact check itself noted that it was “common” for divorces to be delayed in Missouri when a party to the filing is pregnant:
None of these states have any laws preventing someone from getting a divorce if they are pregnant.
However, a judge can decide to hold off on finalizing a divorce until a baby is born for paternity, child support or custody reasons. This is common in Missouri and Texas, but less likely in Arizona, Arkansas and Florida.
The attorneys we talked with from each state said there are no statutes or laws on the books that prevent divorce while pregnant. However, they say that doesn’t mean this doesn’t happen … While Missouri and Texas courts tend to be more likely to delay the dissolution of marriage to avoid any of the potential complications mentioned above, Arizona, Arkansas and Florida attorneys are usually able to account for these issues in advance.
A June 28 2022 AFP fact check (“Missouri law does not prevent pregnant people from initiating divorce”) rated the claim “misleading.” It also largely sought the existence of a law, and also contradicted itself in the body of the story:
Social media posts claim pregnant people cannot get divorced in Missouri. This is misleading; Missouri law does not prevent the initiation of divorce proceedings while pregnant, but family law experts said a pregnancy must be disclosed to the judge, who may delay a final ruling until after the birth in order to resolve custody.
That fact check noted the law does not “explicitly” prevent pregnant people from “initiating” a divorce, adding:
Missouri requires those seeking a divorce to disclose whether they are pregnant, and judges often do not finalize separations until a baby is born. But the law does not prevent pregnant people from initiating a divorce, as other media outlets have reported.
Barbara Glesner Fines, dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, told AFP that while Missouri law “does provide that a petition for divorce must identify whether the wife is pregnant,” the law does not explicitly bar courts from “granting a divorce because a party is pregnant.”
She said it often comes down to local court practice “either as judicial interpretation of their authority under the statute or as an exercise of inherent authority to regulate their dockets.”
Lawyers and experts told AFP that, in practice, divorce proceedings in Missouri do get delayed pending the birth of a child.
Semantically, the “get a divorce” phrasing seemed to be a large element between news articles reporting that pregnant women cannot get a divorce in Missouri, and fact checks asserting that it was untrue on the basis that no law prevented women from filing for divorce. Across the two articles and two fact checks, lawyers and legal experts appeared to agree that “in practice,” dissolution of a marriage was unlikely to occur until one of the parties was no longer pregnant.
AFP’s fact check appeared to arrive at the same conclusion, adding:
John Kershman, a founding partner at the family law firm Ahearn Kershman, agreed. He pointed to an opinion in which the Missouri Supreme Court said a dissolution of marriage “must resolve the issue of custody, in order to be deemed a final judgment.”
Kershman said in an email: “Generally speaking, pregnant people can initiate a divorce in Missouri — it is just that the divorce cannot be finalized until the child is born.” He said the state seeks to ensure “the best interests of the child.”
Regarding the absence of a specific law preventing pregnant women from obtaining a divorce in Missouri, the underlying state law appeared to be this one, which does not explicitly ban divorce when a party to the filing was pregnant, but which is structured in such a way that pregnancy can be used to delay divorce proceedings.
Broadly, the line being reported and fact-checked was whether a pregnant woman in the state of Missouri can get a divorce; “false” or “misleading” ratings held that pregnant women were not restricted from filing for divorce in Missouri.
Almost exclusively, a couple is only thought to be “married” following a legal or religious ceremony known as a wedding. Likewise, Merriam-Webster defined “divorce” as “the action or an instance of legally dissolving a marriage,” not the filing of divorce papers.
Several July 2022 social media posts claimd that a pregnant woman in Missouri could not get a divorce during pregnancy. June 2022 fact checks rated that claim “false” or “misleading,” pointing to an absence of an explicit ban on divorce during pregnancy in the state of Missouri — often noting a pregnant woman in Missouri was entitled to file for divorce, but it would be put on hold until the pregnancy ended. Unanimously, lawyers and legal experts indicated a divorce cannot be “finalized” (or obtained) in Missouri until a pregnant party was no longer pregnant.