Reforming divorce: Changing laws to preserve families

States consider divorce reform in attempt to preserve families

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

"There's hardly any social problem that the government is involved in and spending a lot of money on that isn't heavily affected by marriages not forming and marriages breaking up," says Bill Doherty, professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota.

A 2008 study on the costs of divorce and unwed childbearing estimated that family fragmentation costs taxpayers $112 billion annually for things like food stamps, housing assistance, child welfare services and the justice system.

In a 2005 article in "The Future of Children," University of Pennsylvania sociologist Paul Amato explained that if children were to grow up in stable two-parent families at the same level as 1960 before the massive increase in divorce, it would mean 1.2 million fewer children suspended from school, 538,000 fewer acts of delinquency and 71,400 fewer suicide attempts.

Willett's kids aren't skipping school or tagging cars, but they're still struggling, and Willett is determined to help others avoid the same pain. She's a co-chair with the Coalition for Divorce Reform, along with Chris Gersten, a former official with the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Their non-partisan, volunteer-run organization wants to reduce unnecessary divorce and promote healthy marriages by changing divorce laws and increasing awareness about the impacts of splitting families.

"(We think) if we're not happy and self-fulfilled in every way, our marriages are a failure … and it's not going to get any better," Willett said. "Those are huge misconceptions. Most people don't even know about marriage education … how couples can come back together and those marriages can grow and be stronger. We've just lost our understanding of hard work and patience and how it pays off."

Slow it down

It began with snide comments then grew to heated arguments. But the worst was strained silence during dinner as Jennifer Graham and her then-husband talked with their four children but avoided looking at each other.

The bump in their 18-year marriage had quickly become a mountain, and after two years of fighting, several less-than-effective marriage counselors and a year of him sleeping on the couch, Jennifer willingly signed divorce papers to stop the pain.

"It took me about four months after he moved out to where things were quiet enough inside of me that I could start to heal from the difficult period we had been through," said the Boston mom. "At that point, I saw very clearly what the impact would be on our kids, and it was ugly."

When Jennifer reached out a month before the divorce was to be final, asking that they try one more time, it was just too late.

It's been almost two-and-a-half years, and Jennifer and her children are still struggling.

"He's remarried, and I'm still not over it," she said. "Looking back, there are so many things I wish we had done differently. We just didn't try enough. I wish the state, which claims to be on the side of marriage, had done more in terms of making us wait it out."

Requiring that parents wait eight months to a year before a divorce would be final (except in cases of abuse) is the first element of divorce reform proposals.

"Anything that's done quickly is generally not well thought out," said Ken Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "When people got married they committed for life; I don't think waiting a year is a hardship."

In Maine, where Altshuler practices, the waiting period for a divorce is 60 days. Including the District of Columbia, 10 states have zero waiting periods, 29 states are less than six months, seven states are six months and five states have a waiting period of one year or longer, according to data gathered by John Crouch, former director of Americans for Divorce Reform and now a board member of the CDR.

Crouch also found that nine of the 10 states with the highest divorce rates required no waiting. Of the ten states with the lowest divorce rates, five required waiting.

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