SALT LAKE CITY — A bill cutting down the required waiting period for divorces in Utah is ready for the governor's signature, but the change meant to increase efficiency in the court system has some marriage experts in the state concerned.
Should Gov. Gary Herbert sign off on SB25, which received the final necessary approvals last week after passing both the House and the Senate, divorcing couples in Utah will only need to wait 30 days rather than 90 days to have their divorce finalized.
In reality, many divorces in Utah take closer to two years than 90 days as motions are filed, child custody is settled and property is divvied up, according to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. But for couples in uncontested divorces who have decided among themselves how to separate, including drawing up the necessary paperwork on their own, Weiler said the waiting period feels punitive.
"It's just the government telling adults that we don't trust you to make your own decisions, so we're going to make you wait," Weiler said. "The idea is that if we make you wait, you're going to change your mind. But there's just not much evidence that that's happening."
Weiler said the legislation came about after he participated in a two-year work group looking at court processes for family law issues. The group discovered that the biggest complaint from Utahns who deal with domestic issues in the state's courts was the amount of time it takes to get through the system.
In the U.S. there are 28 states with no required wait time for divorce, according to Weiler, and the divorce rates in those states are no higher than the states that do impose a waiting period.
Alan Hawkins, professor of family life at Brigham Young University and co-chairman of the Utah Marriage Commission, maintains that creating a system that encourages couples to reconcile rather than divorce is better for society as a whole, and especially for children.
"When families break apart, we know that there are public costs — that they are more likely to experience poverty, that there are effects on children that affect everything from our juvenile justice system to our educational system," Hawkins said. "One study here in Utah estimated the cost of family fragmentation to be about $275 million a year. That's taxpayer costs, not including the personal costs borne by these families."
Hawkins does agree, however, that many divorces are necessary, especially in cases of abuse, adultery or addiction. In those situations, Utah should be cautious about imposing barriers to divorce, he said.
Hawkins noted that his opinions on Weiler's legislation are his own and not representative of his employer or the commission. He usually tracks proposed legislation on marriage and divorce each year when the Legislature convenes, but wasn't aware of Weiler's bill until after it had passed.
When most couples begin divorce proceedings, according to Hawkins, one person is generally in favor of splitting up while the other person is unsure. In about 10 percent of divorces, both spouses are unsure about what to do.
Waiting periods — especially when combined with divorce orientation classes, like the ones Utah currently requires — allow couples to assess what they really want before their marriage has been dissolved, he said.
"I think it's the combination of the classes that we ask divorcing parents to take and the 90-day timeout that allows for emotions to cool down and for people to seek out more clarity about what is the best thing to do. I think that combination could reasonably affect people's decisions to divorce," Hawkins said.
In order to save on costly bills from attorneys, a growing number of divorcing couples in Utah are using the state's Online Court Assistance Program to prepare their own paperwork. The system allows them to work through a series of questions, a process that takes an hour or two, then print their own divorce papers to take to a courthouse to be filed.
"People that get together and work out all of the details, those are the people that we're saying, 'Oh, now you guys have to wait an extra 90 days,'" Weiler said. "Nobody else has to wait like that."
Last year, 13,213 divorce petitions were filed in the state of Utah, according to Geoff Fattah, a spokesman for the Utah State Courts. In the same year, 5,095 divorce petitions were generated using the court's online program, he said, though it is unknown how many of them were ultimately filed.
Tamara Fackrell — a partner at Rodriguez-Poston, Fackrell, and McLean Mediation — warns that couples should use caution when preparing their own divorce paperwork online. An increasing amount of Fackrell's workload is helping couples who attempted to file for divorce on their own and ran into trouble, which can end up being costly.
"That's only meant for really simple divorces," Fackrell said. "If people are going to use (the Online Court Assistance Program) for whatever reason, I think it's wise for them to do some sort of consultation with an attorney just to make sure it's written correctly."
Fackrell suggests that couples looking to save money on their divorce hire an attorney mediator, who can help negotiate the separation but isn't representing either party.
"What we do is just help facilitate a strategic negotiation for them, to be able to not have to go to trial in order to resolve their issues," Fackrell said. "It's a very expensive process to go to trial."
Though she works in the divorce field, Fackrell emphasizes that she's a supporter of families staying together when appropriate and especially when children are involved. She sees the role that the divorce waiting period plays in that.
"That's what's so great about the 90-day waiting period that they have. It gives people a chance to use counseling and other resources," Fackrell said. "The majority of people don't reconcile, but for the people that do, it seems like the waiting period is really important."
In spite of his bill, Weiler maintains that with the exception of cases of abuse or other serious problems, he also believes Utah couples struggling in their marriages should strive to reconcile.9 comments on this story
"My advice would be try to save your marriage. All of the nationwide statistics show people are less happy five years after a divorce than they were in the marriage and most people regret the decision," Weiler said. "But most people don't regret the decision in the first three months, and that's my point."
Weiler's original bill sought to do away with the divorce waiting period, but was amended to include a shortened wait time before it eventually passed. Weiler said he may try again in the future to eliminate the waiting period altogether.