NC senator pushes tougher divorce law

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 5, 2013

RALEIGH (AP) — A bill in the North Carolina Senate would require longer waits and new requirements for married couples calling it quits.
The bill, titled the “Healthy Marriage Act,” extends a mandatory waiting period from one year to two years, requires couples to take courses in hopes of changing their minds and allows them to live together instead of separating. While its supporters argue it takes steps to improve divorce rates and protect children from the ill effects, others contend it prolongs and complicates a painful process.
“We have a higher-than-average divorce rate, and I don’t think residents of North Carolina are harder to get along with than people in other states,” said Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba and the bill’s sponsor.
With 3.8 divorces per 1,000 residents, North Carolina’s divorce rate hovers just above the national average of 3.4 per 1,000, according to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report.
But Bill Brooks, executive director of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, said he’s not interested in national or state-by-state comparisons.
“We aren’t living in other states,” he said. “We live in North Carolina.”
Brooks, whose group helped write the legislation, calls divorce a legitimate concern of government that costs taxpayers money for social programs and harms children.
“More poverty, lower school performance, sickness — basically every measure is negative,” Brooks said.
Under the bill, spouses would be required to give written notice of intent to file for divorce, which would start the two-year process. During that time, the couple would be required to take courses on communication and conflict resolution. If they have children, they’d have to complete a course of at least four hours on the effects of divorce on kids.
Waiting periods among North Carolina’s neighbors and other states vary. South Carolina delays one year, but Tennessee, Alabama and Florida maintain little to no waiting time. Brooks notes they all have higher divorce rates than North Carolina, while states with lengthier waits, such as Illinois and Pennsylvania, boast lower incidences of divorce. He said that points to a correlation.
But couples don’t arrive at the decision to end their marriage lightly, and drawing out a divorce only throws more pain into a very deliberate decision, said Lisa Angel, a family law specialist at North Carolina’s Rosen Law Firm.
“In 20 years of being a divorce attorney, I’ve never had a client ask for the waiting period to be longer,” she said. “For most clients they have thought about this and agonized over this for years before they actually separate, so to extend that only causes more emotional and financial hardship for the family and children.”
Angel said the bill’s proposed reform allowing couples to continue living together during what is currently a mandatory separation poses risks for increased litigation. Current law equates a return to living under the same roof with reconciliation, Angel said, and most of the divorces she handles hinge on that definition.
The bill doesn’t specify whether both spouses would have to consent to the arrangement, but Brooks said the decision would have to be mutual, and the language of the bill will be tightened as it progresses.
Those issues and the absence of exemptions for victims of domestic abuse show the bill has a long way to go, Angel said.
“Why should they participate in counseling with someone they feel puts their safety at risk?” Angel said. “I really think (the legislators) should talk to family law attorneys who are used to people going through separation and divorce.”
Allran said the issue of domestic violence will be addressed at the committee level.
“I’m not only open to that; I have been made very abundantly aware that needs to be looked at,” he said.
Brooks said the bill purposefully left out some details, such as whether the law would apply strictly to contested divorces, with the intention that lawmakers would add their own input to shape the legislation.
The first step, though, is moving the bill from the Committee on Rules and Operations, widely considered a graveyard for legislative actions, to a Senate Judiciary Committee, Allran said. He serves as co-chairman of one of those committees.