For more than four decades, Americans have by and large ignored the devastating consequences of divorce on our nation's families. So in 2011 we launched the Coalition for Divorce Reform (CDR), a non-partisan coalition of divorce reform leaders, marriage educators, domestic violence experts, scholars and concerned citizens. Our goal? To increase awareness of the negative impacts of divorce, encourage debate about solutions, and most important, to support passage of divorce reform legislation.
Less than two years after formation of the CDR, legislators in North Carolina and Georgia, states with divorce rates among the highest in the nation, have taken bold and courageous steps toward reducing unnecessary divorce and promoting healthy marriages. Representatives in both states have introduced groundbreaking divorce reform legislation.
The bills build on facets of the Parental Divorce Reduction Act (the CDR's model legislation), and the Second Chances Act (legislation crafted by Democrats Prof. William Doherty and Justice Leah Ward Sears, and to which CDR members Beverly Willett and John Crouch both contributed). Both bills extend the current waiting periods for divorce and provide help for ailing marriages. (The PDRA was first introduced into legislation by Sen. Mark Boitano in New Mexico in 2011. Lawmakers in Texas and several other states are currently contemplating it as well.)
The Healthy Marriage Act was introduced by three North Carolina state senators on March 28, 2013. Current North Carolina law unintentionally promotes divorce by mandating that couples live separate and apart before divorcing. Senate Bill 518 is unprecedented, permitting couples to decide whether to remain under the same roof before divorcing and thereby encourage reconciliation and alleviate some of the financial burdens some couples face by being required to live apart.
The Act also extends the current one-year waiting period to two. During that time, all couples would take be required to complete courses on improving their communication skills and conflict resolution. Those with minor children would also be expected to take a four-hour class on the impact of divorce on children. The spouse seeking to divorce must give a formal notice of intent to divorce in order to trigger commencement of the waiting period. Statutory protection for victims of domestic violence would remain untouched.
The bill was prompted by the efforts of CDR Advisory Board member, Michael McManus, who worked in conjunction with the North Carolina Family Policy Council to get the measure introduced.
"I predict that if the Healthy Marriage Act is passed as written, it would slash North Carolina's divorce rate in half in five years," McManus says. McManus is founder of Marriage Savers.
On the same day legislation was introduced in North Carolina, a bill to amend Georgia's divorce statute was also sponsored by Representative Jason Spencer. CDR supporter Reverend Greg Griffin single-handedly created the legislative support necessary to get the bill crafted and introduced, volunteering over six months of his time walking up and down the halls of the state capitol buttonholing one state legislator after another until he garnered support to get House Bill 684 introduced. His template? The Parental Divorce Reduction Act and Second Chances.
The Georgia bill would apply only to parents with children six months shy of their 18th birthday and under, and to expectant couples. Divorcing parents would be required to participate in eight hours of educational skills-building classes that focus on the effect of divorce on families, especially children, and the benefits of marriage, as well as teach communication skills and conflict resolution. Parents can attend classes together or separately. Upon completion of classes, spouses would be given additional help in the form of lists of resources for marriage-friendly counseling, relationship education and mental health counseling.
Exemptions exist for couples who have been living apart for more than five years or where one of the parties is serving a sentence in the Department of Corrections. And the Act provides protection for marriages where there is domestic violence.
Under Georgia's current domestic relations statute, no-fault divorces can be granted after the expiration of a mere 30 days after service of a complaint. The new law would permit the granting of a divorce only after approximately 11 months after the date of service of a petition for divorce. The bill also contains financial relief for indigents.
"I'm passionate about House Bill 684 because it has the potential to reduce the divorce rate among parents of minors by as much as a third, every year," Griffin says. "Perhaps the greatest positive impact though will be on the future families of those children because an intact home gives them a better chance of a successful marriage as adults. To me, this bill is about compassion and courage."