A letter warning a spouse that divorce could be imminent, a “cooling off” period and classes on reconciliation are parts of a model legislation package aimed at helping troubled couples avoid “preventable” divorce.
The “Second Chances Act” hasn’t been fully introduced in any state, but momentum is building for it, supporters told a Brookings Institution forum.
“We are suggesting some modest reforms because we believe that there are preventable divorces, and that children are most harmed by those divorces that are preventable,” said William J. Doherty, family social science professor at the University of Minnesota.
The goal is to “give a second chance” to couples who desire it, said retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, co-author of the Second Chances Act with Mr. Doherty.
It is not designed to end divorce or no-fault divorce, she said. However, the American public “wants more speedbumps on the road to divorce,” especially if minor children are in the home.
Chief Justice Sears and Mr. Doherty told the Brookings forum Friday that the Second Chances Act could be waived in special circumstances, such as divorces over “hard reasons” such as adultery, abuse and addiction.
The “target couples” are those who are ambivalent about divorce, open to reconciliation or considering divorce for “soft reasons,” such as growing apart or losing their ability to communicate.
Most of today’s divorces are over “what we call ‘soft’ reasons” - the average divorce occurs in a marriage that was relatively happy, with low levels of conflict, just two years earlier, said Mr. Doherty. Children fare worse in these kinds of divorces, he said, because their families seem stable and content, and then “the bottom falls out” of their world.
The Second Chances Act, which was outlined in a report published by the Institute for American Values with help from IAV board member Charles P. Stetson Jr., urges states to:
• Require parents of minor children to attend divorce-education classes, in person or online, before they can file for divorce. A session on reconciliation would be included in the classes.
• Set a one-year (“cooling off”) period before a divorce can become final, and establish a way for spouses to send their mates an “early notification and divorce prevention letter” to warn them that divorce is imminent if problems are not addressed.
• Create “centers of excellence” within universities or nonprofits to develop the state’s capacity to help couples at risk of divorce.
“Society pays a very large cost for the decline and erosion of marriage” - some 65 percent of means-tested welfare assistance goes to single-parent families, said Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Robert Rector, who called for marriage education as well as divorce reform.
Theodora Ooms, a consultant to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, urged Second Chances supporters to build broad coalitions, especially with domestic-violence organizations and lawyers. In the 1990s, she noted, the covenant-marriage divorce reform didn’t take off in part because marriage-license clerks weren’t trained or on board with it.