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Bill would provide 'off ramp' for divorce superhighway

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Hennepin County Family Justice Center
The Hennepin County Family Justice Center is where couples in Hennepin County must go for a divorce. The Legislature is considering a bill that family advocates say would provide an "off ramp" on the superhighway to divorce.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

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.

Graphic: Minn. Divorces
Typically between 1,300 and 1,500 divorces occur in Minnesota every month.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

"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.

"That's a lot of children," Doherty said. "That's a lot of families."

Couples with a history of domestic violence would not qualify.

"[They are] a lot more ambivalent and reluctant about getting a divorce than anybody realized."

State Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, the chief author of the Couples on the Brink bill, thinks the bill could strengthen families.

"We want government to be less intrusive and less of a factor in our lives," Dassel said. "And in order to get people to be able to depend less on government, we need strong, healthy, prosperous families. So I've promoted that angle to try to meet Republicans' goals." 

Dille's bill has bipartisan support, but it hit a snag with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration. Dille had hoped to redirect money from an existing $5 tax on marriage licenses that funded Doherty's research on unmarried parents.

Although that project has ended, the Pawlenty administration noticed the $100,000 the tax was still generating and redirected it to help solve the state's budget deficit, Dille said.

"They're just running around picking up money where they can find it, and they found a little bit there so they took it," he said.

Under Dille's bill, the costs of a marriage license would increase from $110 to $115. Couples who complete 12 hours of pre-marriage education currently pay a $40 fee and wouldn't have to pay the additional $5.

Divorce lawyers say there are better uses for this public money.  The Minnesota State Bar Association's 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.

Waggoner said funding those efforts would be a better investment of public monies than training marriage therapists.

As for the question of whether couples who might want to give their marriages one more chance can find the off ramp from divorce court, Waggoner points out that the courts already allow couples to put their cases on inactive status for a year if they want to try to reconcile. In her experience, that rarely happens.