Group suggests 1-year wait to get divorced

Published: Sunday, Oct. 23 2011 10:50 p.m. MDT

Well into the divorce process, new research has found, about 40 percent of American couples had one or both parties open to the possibility of reconciliation.

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SALT LAKE CITY — New research shows that a "surprising" number of people in the throes of a divorce might be amenable to reconciliation if they could slow things down and address some troubling issues in their marriage. Now a national organization has released a three-point proposal to do just that, aimed at state legislatures.

Their proposal, called the "Second Chance Act," would create a yearlong waiting period before a divorce could be finalized. In that time, the party seeking divorce could choose to use an early notification letter to let the spouse know a divorce was wanted, without filing for divorce.

"New research shows that a lot more divorces are preventable than we had thought before," William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and director of the Couples on the Brink Project, who co-wrote the report, told the Deseret News. "We know a lot about average marriages that fall apart and they are not the toxic war zones we tend to associate with divorce.... New research shows that even after someone files for divorce, there's a lot of ambivalence about whether divorce is the right thing to do."

"Second Chances: A Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce," released Friday by the Institute for American Values, says that — contrary to popular belief — couples don't typically divorce after miserable and conflict-filled marriages. Research suggests that there's little difference between broken and intact marriages, in fact. Most divorced couples "report average happiness and low levels of conflict" in the years before the divorce, said Doherty and co-principal investigator Leah Ward Sears, partner at Schiff Hardin LLP and a former Georgia Supreme Court chief justice.

Well into the divorce process, they found, about 40 percent of American couples had one or both parties open to the possibility of reconciliation. They told Jennifer Lai of the Huffington Post that one-third of men and one-fifth of women felt their marriages could be saved with hard work. They also found that even a "modest reduction" in divorce would benefit 400,000 American children and provide significant savings in terms of tax dollars.

The cooling-off period the "Second Chance Act" would mandate is very different from modern practice, Doherty said. Once divorce paperwork is filed, "in most states the whole infrastructure is designed to move things through as quickly as possible.

During that year, the couple could work on the terms of the divorce, such as custody, division of assets and more. But they could also choose to work on saving the marriage.

The proposal would also require couples with minor children to take a pre-filing education class on diverse topics such as reconciliation and also how to divorce without being combative. Doherty said curriculum would include what divorce means for children, skills for parents, co-parenting, information about reconciliation as an option and other resources. "That puts good information in the hands of every parent before they take any legal action," he noted.

Finally, legislatures adopting the act would create university-based "centers of excellence" to provide education and resources for couples at risk of divorce.

There's a model for that in Minnesota, funded by a modest increase in certain fees. Part of the goal is to help lawyers, therapists, clergy and others who are called upon in crisis to know how to help when that crisis is in a marriage, he said, Other aspects of the proposed act are being tested in Minnesota and elsewhere, a little at a time, he noted.

Not all divorces would be slowed down. There are exceptions for domestic violence, for example. And the educational requirement can be set aside if there are no classes available in your specific language, for instance.

Besides explaining what the goal is, Doherty emphasized what it is not. It's not an attempt to roll back no-fault divorce, he said. And it's not a change to existing parental rights laws or joint custody, either.

This summer, the institute published another report on the result of divorce or unwed childbearing, which it combined as family fragmentation. That study noted that while discussion of marriage has focused on those social costs, marriage isn't just social, but an economic driver, as well. Marriage, it said, may reduce the need for expensive social programs, such as Medicaid and public assistance.

Researchers for that study used what they called "the extremely cautious assumption that all of the taxpayer costs of divorce and unmarried childbearing stem from the effects that family fragmentation has on poverty." That's well-accepted and quantified by other research, they noted. With that methodology, U.S. taxpayers pick up at least $112 billion every year in costs for related antipoverty, criminal justice and education programs, among others. Of those taxpayer costs, $70.1 billion are federal level, while $33.3 billion are incurred at state level and $8.5 billion in local communities.

The entire Second Chance proposal and the report that it was based on are available online at www.americanvalues.org/secondchances.

EMAIL: Lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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