Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Minnesota "Couples on the Brink" Bill

Proponents of a pending bill in the Minnesota legislature argue it provides "an off ramp on the superhighway to divorce":

Minnesota courts are working to process divorces more quickly. Research shows the longer divorce cases drag on in the courts, the more animosity builds up, particularly if couples have children.

But some wonder if speedy divorces are too quickly rushing people to end marriages -- even couples who might have some hope of reconciling. To address such concerns, the Legislature is considering a bill that family advocates say would provide an "off ramp" on the superhighway to divorce.

"We have data on 2,500 divorcing people in Hennepin County. [They are] parents who are a lot more ambivalent and reluctant about getting a divorce than anybody realized," said Bill Doherty, a marriage expert at the University of Minnesota.

Doherty and his research team, which included a family court judge, surveyed 2,484 divorcing parents in 2008 and 2009, and found that 70 percent of couples agreed divorce was the best course of action. But in about one-third of the cases, at least one spouse wasn't sure.

Some were wavering. Others said they'd stay if their spouse significantly addressed problems such as alcoholism or infidelity, and others said they'd do anything to save their marriage.

The most likely person to be interested in saving a marriage was the person left behind. Since two-thirds of divorces are brought by wives, husbands are more often what Doherty calls "the hopeful spouse."

But the courts aren't designed for such uncertainty, said Doherty, a licensed psychologist and director of the university's Marriage and Family Therapy program.

"The way the courts view it is you have a legal right to a divorce," he said. "And just like when you show up to get your driver's license, nobody says, 'Are you sure you want to drive?'"

The Couples on the Brink bill that Doherty is championing would use an additional $5 tax on marriage licenses to develop a way to identify couples who might want to reconcile -- and improve the quality of marriage counseling they'd receive.

"They go to clergy who often don't know what to do with them," Doherty said. "They go to counselors who are sometimes not well trained in marriage counseling. And even if they do some marriage counseling, these are difficult situations."

Doherty likens it to practicing medicine in an emergency room. He said that with better training for counselors and clergy, 10 percent of couples headed for divorce might be able to restore their marriages.

Couples with a history of domestic violence would not qualify.

Divorce lawyers say there are better uses for this public money. The Minnesota State Bar Association family lawyers narrowly voted against supporting Couples on the Brink, said Pamela Waggoner, chairwoman of the bar's family law section.

"We have other programs that are wanting -- domestic violence prevention programs and programs that assist parents in successfully parenting their children as a separated couple," she said.

Read more news coverage here or the bill here.

AC

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