In response to the growing number of children growing up with separated or divorced parents, a lawmaker in Utah is hoping to reduce divorce rates in his state through legislation.
Utah was the first state in 1994 to require couples to complete what is now a two-hour, $55 seminar before courts will finalize a split. The class includes a strong emphasis on protecting children during the process of a divorce. Instructors go over the legal paths to divorce, while also making it clear that couples can still reconcile. Republican Rep. Jim Nielson, sponsor of the new bill, wants to require couples to take the reconciliation part of the course earlier than they currently have to.
“If you’ve gotten so far down the road that you feel like you’re pretty much done, you’re not going to rethink something that you’ve spent that long moving toward,” Nielson said.
Nielson proposes that before parents get custody rights or financial orders, they must first have the course certificate. The proposal would exempt people seeking protective orders.
Opponents are skeptical that the new provision will help, saying that once couples reach the class, they will likely go through with the divorce. But the measure is likely to pass over objections from those who say it will only worsen an already grueling and painful process.
According to a 2008 study by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, 48 states offer such classes in some form. Twenty-seven states require in statute that parents take the class, and others leave the decision up to counties, other districts, or individual judges.
Some mandate a video session while others include roleplaying and other information about how the split could affect children and teens.
Utah’s divorce rate is just slightly above the national average. It has waned in recent years, mirroring a dip in the state’s marriage rate. But Utah lawmakers aren’t alone in discussing measures that would, in effect, make it more difficult to divorce.
A pending proposal in the Oklahoma Legislature would prolong the divorce waiting period to six months. A 2013 North Carolina bill also proposed extending the waiting period to two years. And Colorado legislators in 2012 considered a measure to have couples wait a year.
During one recent class in Utah, some wore sweatpants and baseball caps, others pleated slacks and blouses. Some showed up with watery eyes. The classes include how to leave the kids out of arguments, and how much legal fees can cost.
Alan Hawkins, a professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, said Nielson’s bill would help lower the numbers of people who divorce by installing a necessary yellow light. He said academic studies show that about 1 in 10 divorces “are a mistake for everyone involved.” In those cases, he said, repairing the marriage would be the better option.