Divorce reform could save billions in government aid

Groups back methods to reduce splits

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Now that government belt-tightening has become a national obsession, divorce-reform advocates are making the argument that they can be part of the solution.

Divorce is costly for everyone, they argue, and encouraging troubled couples to try to work things out could benefit the national bottom line.

The average split costs a couple $2,500. A new single-parent family with children can cost the government $20,000 to $30,000 a year. That’s $33 billion to $112 billion a year total in divorce-related social-service subsidies and lost revenue.

The country is “absolutely” ready for divorce reform, said Chris Gersten, founder and chairman of the nonpartisan Coalition for Divorce Reform.

If states pass the coalition’s legislative model that aims at cutting divorce rates by a third in five years, “the savings to taxpayers will be pretty dramatic,” he said.

Even a “modest reduction” in the U.S. divorce rate likely would benefit 400,000 children and save taxpayers significant sums, wrote retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and University of Minnesota professor William J. Doherty, proponents of a new “Second Chances” divorce reform.

“We have to rethink this ‘easy-to-divorce’ strategy,” added Michael McManus, author and founder of Marriage Savers, which promotes a community marriage strategy that has been shown to reduce divorce rates by an average of 17.5 percent.

Americans have consistently supported more restrictive divorce laws. For more than 30 years, the General Social Survey asked Americans if divorce should be “easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?” The most popular answer is always “more difficult.”

But 40 years of no-fault divorce have made marital formation, disruption and reformation so accepted that Americans have “a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else,” Andrew J. Cherlin said in his 2009 book, “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.”

Tackling divorce

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) - which has emerged as the pre-eminent source for marriage and divorce data because of its 2.2 million-household sample size - counted 1,087,920 divorces and a divorce rate of 8.2 per 1,000 population in 2008. This is higher than other federal figures because ACS has data from all states.

Serious divorce reform was last tried 14 years ago when Louisiana passed a “covenant-marriage” law. “Covenant couples” agree to premarital education and marriage counseling. However, only three states have adopted a covenant-marriage law, and only a tiny number of couples opt in.

In contrast, no-fault divorce recently expanded into the one holdout state.

In 2010, New York lawmakers passed a law dropping the need for a “grounds” trial in contested divorces, and instead freed spouses to divorce without assigning fault. The public responded enthusiastically to the speedier divorce law: In the first seven months after the law went into effect, divorces rose 12 percent, compared to the previous year, the Business Review said, citing data from New York courts.

Not surprisingly, many family-law scholars, divorce lawyers and domestic-violence opponents oppose efforts to delay people’s ability to divorce.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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