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Know the Laws: Virginia

UPDATED October 2, 2012

Protective Orders for Family Abuse

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A family abuse protective order is a civil court order that is designed to stop violent behavior and keep your abuser away from you.

Basic information

back to topWhat is the legal definition of domestic violence in Virginia?

This section defines domestic violence for the purposes of getting a protective order.

In Virginia, domestic violence is referred to as family abuse. “Family abuse” is when a family or household member commits any act involving violence, force, or threat that results in physical injury or places you in reasonable fear of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury.  Such acts include, but are not limited to, any forceful detention, stalking, criminal sexual assault or any criminal offense that results in bodily injury or places you in reasonable fear of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury.*

* VA ST § 16.1-228

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back to topWhat types of protective orders are there? How long do they last?

A family abuse protective order is a civil court order that is designed to stop violent behavior and keep the abuser away from you.  There are 3 types of protective orders for family abuse:

Emergency Protective Order: An emergency protective order is designed to give you immediate protection, and can be given on the weekends or after business hours when the courthouse is not open. It also can be given ex-parte by a judge, if s/he believes that you are in immediate danger. Ex-parte means the abuser does not have to be present or know that the order has been requested. However, the abuser will have to be served (given the order) before it takes effect.

You can petition for an emergency order with a magistrate at the Court Service Unit of a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, or at a General District Court or Circuit Court. A law enforcement official may also request that one be given to you.

An emergency order expires at the end of the third day following issuance. If it expires at a time when the court is not in session, the order will be extended until the end of the next business day the court is in session. An additional three days extension may also be granted, if you are hospitalized or otherwise incapacitated.*

The judge or magistrate should provide written information regarding protective orders that shall include the telephone numbers of domestic violence agencies and legal referral sources on a form prepared by the Supreme Court.*

Preliminary Protective Orders: A preliminary protective order is the first step in obtaining a Permanent Protective Order. It is similar to an emergency order, but law enforcement officials cannot request a preliminary order for you. You must file a written petition yourself at the intake office of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations courthouse. To fill out the petition before you go to court, you can use the I-Can system.

Preliminary orders last up to 15 days, unless the court continues the case for longer.**

If the respondent fails to appear at this hearing because the respondent was not personally served, the court may extend the protective order for a period not to exceed six months. The extended protective order shall be served as soon as possible on the respondent.**

Permanent Protective Orders:
A permanent protective order can last up to 2 years. It can only be granted after a full court hearing where both you and the abuser have an opportunity to tell your own sides of the story to a judge.  However, you can file to extend it before your order expires.  See How do I change or extend the permanent order? for more information.

A permanent protective order takes effect after it has been served (given) to the abuser. You should be notified when the abuser is served.

* Va. Code § 16.1-253.4
** Va. Code § 16.1-253.1(B)

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back to topHow can an emergency protective order help me?

An emergency protective order can:

  • prohibit acts of family abuse or criminal offenses that result in injury to a person or property;
  • prohibit any contact by the abuser with you or your family or household members that the judge or magistrate believes is necessary to protect your/their safety; and
  • grant you possession of the home that you and the abuser share and exclude (remove) the abuser.*
* Va. Code § 16.1-253.4(B)

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back to topHow can a preliminary protective order help me?

A preliminary protective order can:

  • prohibit acts of family abuse or criminal offenses that result in injury to a person or property;
  • prohibit any contact by the abuser with you or your family or household members that the judge believes is necessary to protect your/their safety;
  • grant you possession of the home that you and the abuser share and exclude (remove) the abuser and order that the abuser cannot turn off any necessary utility services to the home (or order him/her to get them turned back on if s/he terminated them);
  • grant you temporary possession/use of vehicle that you own by yourself or that you jointly own with the abuser;
  • require that the abuser provide suitable alternative housing for you and any other family or household member (and possibly require the abuser to pay deposits to connect or restore necessary utility services in the alternative housing provided); and/or
  • give you anything else that is necessary for the protection of you and your family or household members.*
* Va. Code § 16.1-253.1(B)

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back to topHow can a (final) protective order help me?

A protective order can:

  • Order the abuser to stop abusing you;
  • Order the abuser to stop contacting you or your family or household members;
  • Order the abuser to leave your house, and give you temporary possession of the house (This does not change who owns the house on paper);
  • Order the abuser to not shut off the utilities, and to restore utilities, if applicable;
  • Give you temporary possession of any jointly owned motor vehicles and prevent the abuser from using the vehicle;
  • Require the abuser to provide suitable alternative housing for you and other family/household members, and to pay deposits to have utilities connected or restored in this housing;
  • Order the abuser to participate in treatment, counseling or other programs;
  • Grant you temporary custody of your children or temporary visitation for any children you have in common with the abuser;
  • Grant you a temporary child support order for the support of any children you have with the abuser;
  • Provide any other relief necessary to protect you and your family.*

Whether a judge orders any or all of the above depends on the facts of your case.

Note: Federal law states that domestic violence abusers with protective orders against them are forbidden to own, purchase or transport firearms. Be sure to tell the judge if the abuser owns any weapons. Whether or not the judge in your case will require the abuser to give up his firearms is up to the judge.

 * VA ST 16.1-279.1

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back to topHow much does it cost to get a protective order? Do I need a lawyer?

Nothing. There is no filing fee to get a protective order.*

You do not need a lawyer to file for a protective order, but it may be helpful to have a lawyer, especially if the abuser has a lawyer. Even if the abuser does not have a lawyer, if you can, it is recommended that you contact a lawyer to make sure that your legal rights are protected.

If you cannot afford a lawyer but want one to help you with your case, you can find information on legal assistance and domestic violence organizations on the VA Where to Find Help page. In addition, the domestic violence organizations in your area and/or court staff may be able to answer some of your questions or help you fill out the necessary court forms.

 * VA ST 16.1-279.1

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back to topIn which county can I file for a protective order?

You can file a petition in the county where you live, in the county where the abuser lives, or in the county where the abuse took place.  If there is already another protective order in effect that protects you or your family or household member(s), you have the option of filing your petition in that county.*

* VA ST § 16.1-243(3)

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Who is eligible for a protective order

back to topWho can get a family abuse protective order?

You can get a protective order if you have been abused by:

  • A current or former spouse;
  • A parent, child, stepparent, stepchild, brother, sister, half-brother, half-sister, grandchild , or grandparent, regardless of whether or not you live together;
  • Your mother-in-law, father-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law, if you live with that person;
  • Anyone you have had a child with, whether or not the two of you have been married or have ever lived together; or
  • Any individual (or their child) who lives with you or has lived with you (in an intimate relationship) within the past 12 months.

To read the exact terminology, please see the VA Legal Statutes page, § 16.1-228.

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back to topCan I get a protective order against a same-sex partner?

Maybe.  Although the language of the statute does not specifically exclude same-sex partners, in the past, Virginia has not allowed same-sex partners to get protective orders.  As a result of a 2006 Attorney General's opinion, it may be possible to get a protective order against a same-sex partner.  For more information, contact your local domestic violence advocate or lawyer to understand how the judge in your area tends to rule in same-sex cases.  See VA Where to Find Help

If you are unable to get a domestic violence protective order, you might be eligible to get a Protective Order for an Act of Violence, Force, or Threat against your same-sex partner. 

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back to topWhat if I do not qualify for a family abuse protective order?

In Virginia, civil protective orders generally do not cover people who are/were not family or household members.

However, assault, stalking, and harassment are against the law. If one of these crimes is being committed against you, you may want to consider calling the police. If criminal charges are pressed against the abuser and a warrant is issued for the abuser's arrest, a judge may be able to order him/her to stay away from you. You can also visit our Staying Safe page for ways to increase your safety.

If you do not qualify for a protective order based on domestic violence, you may be able to file for a Protective Order for an Act of Violence, Force or Threat.

If you are being stalked or harassed, go to the Stalking Resource Center website for more information on stalking and harassment laws, as well safety planning information.

Protective orders also do not cover many types of emotional or mental abuse. If you're being mentally or emotionally abused, please contact a domestic violence organization in your area. They can help you figure out your options and offer you support. See: VA Where to Find Help.

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Steps for getting a protective order

back to topStep 1: Go to court to file a petition

You can file a petition for a permanent order at a juvenile and domestic relations court or circuit court.  Go to the clerk of court and tell him/her you want an application for a protective order. You can also find links to these forms online by going to our Download Court Forms page. You can complete the form online and take it with you to the court. For the location of a court near you, go to our Courthouse Locations page.

If you are in immediate danger of abuse and the court is closed, you may get an emergency order by going to the nearest police department. If you are issued this order, it will only be good for 72 hours, or until the court is open again.

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back to topStep 2: Bring identification and information about your abuser.

It is sometimes helpful to bring the following information about the abuser:

  • a photo
  • addresses of home, job, and other places that person may be
  • phone numbers
  • a description and plate number of your abuser's car
  • history of drugs or gun ownership

Remember also to bring some form of personal identification (a driver's license or other identification that includes your picture).

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back to topStep 3: Fill out the necessary forms

The clerk will provide you with the forms that you need to file. On the complaint for protective order form, you will be the "petitioner" and the abuser will be the "respondent."  Write briefly about the most recent incidents of violence, using descriptive language - words like "slapping," hitting," "grabbing," threatening," "choking," etc. - that fits your situation.  Include details and dates, if possible.

Be specific. It will also be important to write any previous court action you have taken against the abuser.

Be sure to write your name and a safe mailing address and phone number. If you are staying at a shelter, give a Post Office Box, not a street address.

If you need assistance filling out the form, ask the clerk for help. Some courts may have an advocate that can assist you. Another option is to find help through one of the domestic violence organizations listed on our VA State and Local Programs page.

You will find links to the forms you will need at our Download Court Forms page or from the courthouse in your area

Note: Be sure to sign the forms in front of the court clerk. Once you have completed your paperwork, return them to the clerk. The probation department will then run a "check" of the abuser's criminal and protective order history.

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back to topStep 4: A judge will review your petition

After you finish filling out your application, bring it back to the court clerk.  The clerk will forward it to a judge.  The judge may wish to ask you questions as he or she reviews your application. The judge will decide whether or not to issue the preliminary order, and if you seek a permanent order the judge will set a date for a hearing.

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back to topStep 5: Service of process

The court will send a copy of your preliminary protective order (if the judge granted you one) and a notice of hearing to the sheriff or police so that they can serve the abuser with these papers.  The abuser must be served with the notice of hearing before the hearing can take place.  If the sheriff cannot find the abuser to serve him with this notice, then the judge may wish to postpone the hearing.  Be sure to have your preliminary order extended, if this is the case.

You may wish to stay in touch with the sheriff or police to see if they received your paperwork from the court, and to see if the abuser has been served or not.

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back to topStep 6: The Hearing

Your hearing will take place within 15 days from the time you file the petition. 

You must go to the hearing.  If you do not go to the hearing, your preliminary order will expire and you will have to start the process over.  If you do not show up at the hearing, it may be harder for you to get a protective order in the future. 

If the abuser has received notice of the hearing, but does not show up, the judge will most likely continue with the hearing without the abuser present. The judge may, however, decide to reissue the preliminary protective order and schedule a new hearing. This is likely to happen if the abuser had not received notice of the hearing.

Continuance. You have the right to bring a lawyer to represent you at the hearing. If you show up to court and the abuser has a lawyer and you do not, you may ask the judge for a continuance to set a later court date so you can have time to find a lawyer for yourself.

It is a good idea to see a lawyer if you think the abuser will challenge custody or child support, or if you have been severely injured or expect an injury to last a long time. If the court does issue a continuance, the court should also reissue or extend your preliminary order since your original one will probably expire before the rescheduled hearing.

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back to topStep 7: What will I have to prove at the hearing?

As a petitioner requesting a protective order, you must:

See Preparing your Case for ways you can show the judge that you were abused.

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After the hearing

back to topWhat should I do when I leave the courthouse?

  • Review the order before you leave the court room.  If something is wrong or missing, ask the clerk to correct the order before you leave.
  • Make several copies of the protective order as soon as possible.
  • Keep a copy of the order with you at all times.
  • Leave copies of the order at your work place, at your home, at the childrens school or daycare, in your car, with a sympathetic neighbor, and so on.
  • Give a copy to the security guard or person at the front desk where you live and/or work.
  • Give a copy of the order to anyone who is named in and protected by the order.
  • The court should file a copy of your order with the local law enforcement agency.  Check and make sure a copy has been filed. Take one of your extra copies and deliver it to the police if necessary.
  • You may wish to consider changing your locks and your phone number, as well as taking other security precautions.

You may also wish to make a safety plan. Women can do a number of things to increase their safety during violent incidents, when preparing to leave an abusive relationship, and when they are at home, work, and school. Many batterers obey protective orders, but some do not and it is important to build on the things you have already been doing to keep yourself safe. Click on the following link for suggestions on Staying Safe.  Also, advocates at local domestic violence organizations can assist you in designing a safety plan and can provide other forms of support.  To find a shetler or advocate in your area please visit the VA State and Local Programs page.

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back to topI was not granted a protective order. What can I do?

If you are not granted a protective order, there are still some things you can do to stay safe. It might be a good idea to contact one of the domestic violence resource centers in your area to get help, support, and advice on how to stay safe. They can help you come up with a safety plan and help connect you with the resources you need. You will find a list of resources on our VA Where to Find Help page. You can also find safety planning tips on our Staying Safe page.

You may also be able to reapply for a protective order if you have new evidence to show the court that domestic violence did occur, or if a new incident of domestic violence occurs after you are denied the order.

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back to topWhat happens if the abuser violates the order?

You can call the police, even if you think it is a minor violation.  It can be a crime and contempt of court if the abuser knowingly violates the order in any way.  The abuser can be arrested, fined and even jailed for violating the protective order.  It can be a Class 1 misdemeanor when s/he violates the part of the order that prohibits the abuser from:

  • going or remaining upon land, buildings, or premises; 
  • committing family abuse;
  • committing a criminal offense; or
  • contacting you or your family or household members.*

It can be a Class 6 felony crime if the abuser enters your home while you are there, if s/he causes injury, if it is the second or third time s/he violates the order, etc.*  To read all of the possible ways that a violation can be a felony, please go to our VA Statutes page. 

It is a good idea to write down the name of the responding officer(s) and their badge number in case you want to follow up on your case.  You should also make sure the police or sheriff write a report on the incident even if the abuser is not arrested --- this is required under Virginia law.**  The report could be valuable documentation if you try to modify or extend your order.

In addition to calling the police, if you want criminal charges to be pressed, you will most likely need to file the charges with the Magistrate's office (in a few counties, you can go through the Commonwealth Attorney's office).

* VA ST § 16.1-253.2
** VA ST § 19.2-81.3(D)

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back to topHow do I change or extend the permanent order?

Only a judge can modify a protective order.  If you or the abuser wish to change the terms of the order, a "Request to Modify" can be filed. If you wish to cancel the order, a "Motion to Dismiss" can be filed.  The court may be less willing to offer you its protection in the future if you have an order dismissed (canceled).

If you want to extend the order, a new law that passed in 2010 now allows orders to be extended.  You can file a "Motion requesting a hearing to extend the order."  This must be filed before your protective order expires.  Proceedings to extend a protective order are supposed to be given high priority by the court.  If you were a member of the respondent's family or household at the time the initial protective order was issued, the court may extend your protective order for a period of up to two years to protect the health and safety of the you or your current family or household member(s).   You can file to extend your order more than once.

For any of the above motions that are filed, the court will set a date for a hearing and the abuser will be served with a copy of the motion and a request to be present.  You must attend this hearing and tell the judge why the change, extension, or dissolution (cancellation) is necessary.

* Va. Code § 16.1-279.1(B)

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back to topWhat happens if I move?

Your order is valid and enforceable wherever you go throughout Virginia.

Additionally, the federal law provides what is called "Full Faith and Credit," which means that once you have a criminal or civil protection order, it follows you wherever you go, including U.S. Territories and tribal lands.  Different states have different rules for enforcing out-of-state protection orders.  

If you are moving out of state, please check the Restraining Order pages for that state on this website for information on how to have your order enforced there.

Please see "Moving to Another State with a Protective Order" section for more information about moving out of VA with your protective order.

Note: Civil protective orders may not be enforceable on military bases, and military protective orders may not be enforceable off base. Please check with your local police department, court clerk, and/or domestic violence advocate for more details. Please see our Military Info page for more information.

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