CHANGING THE WAY WE DIVORCE

Written by Chris Gersten and Beverly Willett

For more than 40 years, Americans have by and large ignored the devastating consequences of no-fault divorce on our nation’s families. All that is about to change.

In 2011 we launched the Coalition for Divorce Reform (CDR), a non-partisan coalition of divorce reform leaders, marriage educators, domestic violence experts, scholars and concerned citizens. Our goal? To increase awareness of the negative impacts of divorce, encourage debate about solutions, and most important, to support passage of divorce reform legislation.

Less than two years after formation of the CDR, legislators in North Carolina and Georgia, states with divorce rates among the highest in the nation, have taken bold and courageous steps toward reducing unnecessary divorce and promoting healthy marriages.  Representatives in both states have introduced groundbreaking divorce reform legislation.

The bills build on facets of the Parental Divorce Reduction Act (the CDR’s model legislation), and the Second Chances Act (legislation crafted by Democrats Prof. William Doherty and Justice Leah Ward Sears, and to which CDR members Beverly Willett and John Crouch both contributed). Both bills extend the current waiting periods for divorce and provide help for ailing marriages. (The PDRA was first introduced into legislation by Sen. Mark Boitano in New Mexico in 2011. Lawmakers in Texas and several other states are currently contemplating it as well.)

The Healthy Marriage Act was introduced by three North Carolina state senators on March 28, 2013. Current North Carolina law unintentionally promotes divorce by mandating that couples live separate and apart before divorcing.  The new bill is unprecedented, permitting couples to decide whether to remain under the same roof before divorcing and thereby encourage reconciliation and alleviate some of the financial burdens some couples face by being required to live apart.

The Act also extends the current one-year waiting period to two. During that time, all couples would take be required to complete courses on improving their communication skills and conflict resolution.  Those with minor children would also be expected to take a four-hour class on the impact of divorce on children.  The spouse seeking to divorce must give a formal notice of intent to divorce in order to trigger commencement of the waiting period. Statutory protection for victims of domestic violence would remain untouched.

The bill was prompted by the efforts of CDR Advisory Board member, Michael McManus, who worked in conjunction with the North Carolina Family Policy Council to get the measure introduced.

“I predict that if the Healthy Marriage Act is passed as written, it would slash North Carolina’s divorce rate in half in five years,” McManus says. McManus is the founder of Marriage Savers.

On the same day legislation was introduced in North Carolina, a bill to amend Georgia’s divorce statute was also sponsored by Representative Jason Spencer. CDR supporter Greg Griffin single-handedly created the legislative support necessary to get the bill crafted and introduced, volunteering over six months of his time walking up and down the halls of the state capitol buttonholing one state legislator after another until he garnered support to get House Bill 684 introduced. His template? The Parental Divorce Reduction Act and Second Chances.

The Georgia bill would apply only to parents with children six months shy of their 18th birthday and under, and to expectant couples.  Divorcing parents would be required to participate in eight hours of educational skills-building classes that focus on the effect of divorce on families, especially children, and the benefits of marriage, as well as teach communication skills and conflict resolution. Parents can attend classes together or separately. Upon completion of classes, spouses would be given additional help in the form of lists of resources for marriage-friendly counseling, relationship education and mental health counseling.

Exemptions exist for couples who have been living apart for more than five years or where one of the parties is serving a sentence in the Department of Corrections. And the Act provides protection for marriages where there is domestic violence.

Under Georgia’s current domestic relations statute, no-fault divorces can be granted after the expiration of a mere 30 days after service of a complaint. The new law would permit the granting of a divorce only after approximately 11 months after the date of service of a petition for divorce. The bill also contains financial relief for indigents.

“I’m passionate about House Bill 684 because it has the potential to reduce the divorce rate among parents of minors by as much as a third, every year,” Griffin says. “Perhaps the greatest positive impact though will be on the future families of those children because an intact home gives them a better chance of a successful marriage as adults. To me, this bill is about compassion and courage.”

Comments

  1. S Green says:

    Most of this sounds like a great idea, except for the part about divorcing couples living in the same home. If both spouses willingly agree, it might be OK. In many states, thanks to no-fault divorce laws, if there is no domestic violence going on, a faithful spouse without sufficient income can be forced to remain in a home in the face on constant cheating, verbal abuse and incredible tension. The kids will have to live with it too. This happened to me when my ex decided to dump me when I was unemployed, in my 50s and in the midst of the Great Recession. We had to live like that for almost two years, until I finally got a decent job and could get an apartment. Friends predicted that he would come out of his midlife spiral and want to reconcile, but after that hellish experience — no way. Some people can patch it back up after a trial separation.

    • The legislation doesn’t require couples to live together, however. It’s just an option. Under current laws, couples generally have to live separate and apart for a period of time so this just allows for more flexibility. I’m sorry to hear about what you went through, and for such a long period. I, too, was unemployed and living in the same household when my ex was having an affair and appreciate how painful that obviously was for you. Best wishes to you. And thanks for your input.

  2. This is not whats needed. What is needed is better laws that doesn’t favor one side or the other in custody of children, amount of child support, and making one parent poor while the other gets child support and doesn’t have to work. The unfair laws throughing child support payers into jail for being behind in support payments because of job lose do to company layoffs and slow job market. Court orders not followed, denied visitation just because the custodial parent is angry at the other. Don’t try to prolong the pain of living together but better rights for both parents so one doesn’t end up on the street trying to pay to much child support. Things happen jobs disappear etc.

  3. Jeremy says:

    What about the other side? Why isn’t there a mandated waiting period to get married? It would seem that, particularly in the “gotta have it now” mentality of the day, mandating people take some time before plunging into marriage might help solve the divorce problem. After all, if this person really is “the one” why would waiting a year make that much of a difference?

    • beverlyw says:

      It’s unlikely you’d ever get legislative support for such a long waiting period before people could get married. So practically speaking this suggestion has little chance of success. Nevertheless, I think you’re definitely right about people taking more time if necessary to make sure they know what their commitment means before plunging into it.

  4. Ken Adams says:

    Is there any data on how many divorces have been called off during a waiting period? My own experience with the waiting period was pain full. I did not want a divorce but when my wife filed for a “no-fault” divorce I found myself in a court hearing where I was not allowed to speak. I was ordered out of my home, separated from my child, and forced to pay separate support and maintenance. The amount I was ordered to pay did not leave me enough funds to care for myself. At the end of the waiting period all the resources I had to defend myself with were gone.

    I find it hard to believe that causing that much stress on the marriage could bring a couple back together. I have not seen any studies that show how waiting periods are work to reduce divorces. I really think this should be studied before making the wait longer.

    It just does not seem fair to award custody and support without a trail or settlement. I believe giving my wife everything she wanted against my will only encouraged her to continue the divorce.

    • beverlyw says:

      Hi Ken,
      I don’t know of any studies on that, but that would be hard to know since many of these would be couples who reconciled before filing. What the statistics do show, however, is that divorce rates are generally lower in those states with longer waiting periods, so there is a correlation. Your experience was unfortunate, and reform is needed in many areas of the domestic relations laws from state to state. Our mission at the Coalition for Divorce Reform, however, is to save marriages with minor children before they reach that point. But if you read the Parental Divorce Reduction Act – the full text as well as summary explanations are provided on the website — you’ll see that our model legislation has much more than just a waiting period. It infuses that waiting period with purpose, the purpose of educating couples about divorce and its effect on them and their children and provides information and skills to help them deal with communication and other problems, with an option to go further and pursue reconciliation. Ideally, this would all happen before litigation when lawyers and judges get involved. It most certainly is harder to fund two homes; living together as one family is definitely less expensive and we do know that marriage builds wealth. This is not necessarily a gender thing across the board, however. Many women and children are plunged into poverty as a result of divorce; and, I, too, did not want my marriage to end. But the concept of temporary alimony and child support is sound, however, because children and parents must be provided for during the pendency of trial or settlement. As you say, there’s often not enough to go around for two households. Our legislation would not require parents to live apart during this period if they choose not to.

  5. Ken Adams says:

    Hi Beverly,

    Thank you for your reply. However, I cannot say that I support the Parental Divorce Reduction Act. It is unfair to force someone who does not want a divorce to pay for and complete the curriculum that will bring about the end of their marriage on completion. (Refer: section 4. F)

    Divorce rates will only be reduced when people are held responsible for their actions. When someone files for a “No-Fault Divorce” they must take responsibility for the divorce. They should not be allowed to file for alimony or child custody without grounds for doing so. The filer must pay any alimony and child support that may be necessary. This is because, it is unfair and unjust for the person who is responsible for the divorce to be released from all marital obligations while their spouse is force to make sacrifices far beyond what is required during marriage. Only when their spouse gives them primary or full custody should they receive child support.

    A Judge’s decision on the “best interest of the child” will always be bias unless fault is involved. A fit parent is far better qualified to decide what is in their child’s “best interest” than a Judge. To take a child away from a fit parent without just cause is wrong.

    Consider what is worse, telling someone they can’t sue for custody and support without grounds, or taking a child away from a fit parent and demanding alimony from someone that has done nothing wrong.

    • Hi Ken,
      The legislation is designed to make the current laws more fair, especially to children who suffer the brunt. And it is based on solid research indicating that many marriages can in fact be saved so contrary to what you say, many divorces will not occur. Nothing is more unfair than what happens today as far as the children is concerned. Personally, I do not support no-fault divorce. I have written about this elsewhere — check The Daily Beast and Huffington Post. But we must be realistic in the legislative arena as well and the Parental Divorce Reduction Act is a realistic proposal that we believe will save families. There are many reforms needed in our domestic relations laws, as I pointed out. We here, however, are only concerned with saving families before they get to the point of divorce court. We know that other organizations are working in other arenas and, as volunteers, we do not have the resources to do that. In addition, we are non-partisan and have different ideas about aspects of marriage. Here we are non-partisan and on the same page, advocating for what we believe will make the kinds of disputes you talk about unnecessary.

  6. Ken Adams says:

    Beverly,

    My point is if the person filing for divorce has to accept responsibility for the divorce then, there would be fewer divorces. The problem is not that people don’t know how bad divorce is … it’s that people don’t care. No training program is going to change that.

    I don’t understand how the “divorce reduction curriculum” is going to save families before they go to court when the curriculum is court ordered. The Act just adds another step to a process that has already started. Furthermore, I really don’t like adding another group of people (the curriculum teachers and developers) who make their living off of divorce. The cost of divorce is high enough already.

    What research are you referring to that shows “mandated” marriage consoling reduces divorce rates? If the solid research is based on couples who sought consoling to save their marriage then there may be a problem with applying those results to couples who file for divorce.

    The Bill may be realistic in what will pass in the “legislative arena” but not realistic in reducing divorce. It worries me that whenever there are people, who can make money off of a bill, the bill is seen as legislatively realistic. However, if you try to talk about protecting the innocent party and holding people accountable for their actions you’re being unrealistic.

    None the less, I do appreciate what you are trying to accomplish and thank you for taking the time to debate with me.

  7. Lisa says:

    I wish there was more written about the harm of divorce with adult children. My husband of 30 years left me, after what our kids and I thought was a solid marriage. I have suffered pain that
    I never could have imagined, but our kids, ages 24 and 27, have also. They hurt so badly. They say their whole life now seems like a lie, and they have difficulty trusting anyone. The three of us are trying to continue family traditions while my (ex) husband moved in with a girlfriend before our divorce was even final. We raised our kids in a Christian home, and our kids are so confused, and disgusted, by his behavior. I continue to pray for my husband and for reconcilliation. But I feel like people need to know about the horrible impact of divorce, even on adult children. Thank you.

    • You are correct. Divorce is almost always traumatic for children even when they are adults at the time of divorce. An intact family provides support and comfort for people throughout their entire lives. Being connected to both parents requires that they continue to live together and that family traditions and holidays continue to be celebrated after children reach adulthood.
      Psychologists rarely study the impact of divorce on adult children as the focus of research is on what happens to young children when their parents separate.

      But experience informs us that adults are quite traumatized when their parents divorce.

Comment Policy:This website will not share or publish your email address. Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. Basic HTML code is allowed.

Leave a Comment

*


*