- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Divorce reform continues to captivate state lawmakers, including a House panel in Michigan that held a hearing Wednesday to gather testimonies on how to shore up America’s marriage culture.

But changing state divorce laws is difficult as the 46-year-old “no-fault” concept is deeply embedded in U.S. culture, and an active legal community is eager to weigh in — and often oppose — reforms.

A Michigan bill this year attempted to change state child-custody law to presume joint custody for divorcing parents unless there was evidence that it was better to give a parent sole custody.

The bill was opposed by judges and Michigan’s legal community and did not advance.

At Wednesday’s hearing, State Rep. Thomas Hooker, chairman of the House Committee on Families, Children and Seniors, said he welcomed testimony about how to change divorce laws because, as a teacher, he witnessed “the damage” done to children because of divorce. “My concern … is for the kids,” Mr. Hooker said.

Michael McManus, author and co-founder of the Marriage Savers ministry, suggested requiring pre-divorce waiting periods of one to two years; permitting divorcing couples to continue to live together (so they are not encouraged to “start dating,”); and allocating as much as 70 percent of the family assets and half of child-custody time to the spouse who wants to preserve the marriage.

“I am suggesting you change the law to encourage reconciliation, not divorce,” said Mr. McManus, author of “How to Cut America’s Divorce Rate in Half: A Strategy Every State Should Adopt.”

Dr. Michael Ross, an emergency room physician and founder of Defending Our Father’s House, suggested the legislature “build law, policies and incentives” to favor marriage, while the Rev. David Kasbow of Metro Detroit Family Church recommended couples be encouraged to obtain premarital education before tying the knot.

Michigan megachurch pastor, the Rev. Nick Phillips of Northridge Church in Plymouth, Mich., also said in a written statement that in 13 years, some 750 couples have participated in a premarital or marriage-renewing program at the church — and 7 percent of the couples ended in divorce or separation.

The church’s approach, which includes a marriage-mentoring program, indicates that couples “just need a safe place” to deal with differences and hurts, and receive guidance on having a successful marriage, he wrote.

The Michigan bill is one of several efforts around the United States aimed at reforming no-fault divorce laws.

Oklahoma officials have already enacted both pre- and post-divorce education laws to educate adults about the impact of divorce.

In Minnesota, lawmakers introduced a bill to allow some couples to sidestep the family court system and craft their own “cooperative, private divorce.” This private agreement that could still be vacated by a court for misconduct, said the bill, which did not advance.

In Texas, a lawmaker introduced a bill this year to establish a “covenant marriage” option, similar to laws in Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas. In a “covenant marriage,” couples agree upfront that they will divorce only under certain circumstances and seek counseling before divorcing. In 2014, Jill and Derick Dillard, whose marriage was seen on a TLC reality show, publicly spoke of getting an Arkansas covenant marriage.

However, over the years, relatively few couples have been reported to take advantage of state covenant-marriage laws, and in Texas, the Texas Family Law Foundation opposed the Texas bill. The measure did not advance.

Other divorce reform efforts include the Coalition for Divorce Reform’s model legislation, which would require parents of minor children to attend “divorce education” classes before they could file for divorce.

It is essentially requiring a “reflection and reconciliation period” before a divorce,  coalition co-founders Chris Gersten and Beverly Willett said.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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