SAN DIEGO, May 15, 2013 – No one can be happy with the high divorce rate in the United States, not even a family law attorney like me. Iowa legislators think making divorce more difficult by becoming the first state to prohibit no-fault divorce in cases with children would be a good first step.
Iowa House File 338 would require one of five conditions for a divorce to proceed in a marriage involving children: adultery, physical or sexual abuse, imprisonment, if one spouse is missing more than a year or if the couple has lived apart for more than two years. Read the bill here.
The bill got as far as the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, but it will not be heard before this legislative session. Still, its author, Rep. Ted Gassman, says he will continue to push for prohibiting no-fault divorce if minor children are in the home.
Gassman made some statements about divorce causing promiscuous behavior among teen girls that enraged a lot of parents and women’s activists. But never mind Gassman’s ill-considered and ignorant remarks. Even without his comments, I can’t sugar coat it: this law would be just plain stupid, even dangerous if passed.
No fault-divorce laws exist in all 50 states. They were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. No-fault divorce make it possible for one party to get a divorce without proving any bad behavior took place, and without getting the consent (permission) of the other spouse. Before the no-fault divorce era, people who wanted to get divorce either had to reach agreement in advance with the other spouse that the marriage was over, or throw them under the bus, proving some kind of wrongdoing like adultery or abuse.
The Iowa legislation would mean a return to this era for any couple with minor children. Supporters say this will help prevent children from experiencing the negative impacts of divorce.
But the negative effects are far, far worse both for children and a spouse forced to stay in a troubled, abusive marriage. According to a study by Stanford University researchers, in states that passed no-fault divorce laws, domestic violence declined between 25 and 50 percent between 1976 and 1985. There was a 10 percent drop in a woman’s chance of being murdered by her spouse or boyfriend. The rate of female suicide fell by 20 percent in states that enacted no-fault divorce laws.
Women wanting to divorce an abuser would have to prove the abuse to a judge. For women unable to afford legal representation, or unable to move out on their own without support, they could find themselves trapped. After experience working with domestic violence victims through a program called “Project SARAH” at San Diego’s Jewish Family Services, we cannot place any more barriers in front of abused women and their children that could prevent them getting out of a dangerous marriage to safety.
No-fault divorce laws aren’t to blame for the high divorce rate. According to research from Reason Online, when a divorce is easier to get, better marriages are the result.
In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), economist Justin Wolfers of Stanford University found that when California passed its no-fault divorce law in 1970, the divorce rate jumped temporarily, but then fell back to its old level — then continued to decline.
In another NBER paper, Wolfers and fellow economist Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania reported when divorce laws dictate that either party, at any time, can get a divorce, there is more incentive to keep the marriage healthy.
I do not believe any couple should take divorce lightly. Wherever possible, I advocate thinking long and hard about the consequences of divorce, and suggest to clients they try to work out problems if any chance for resolving them exists.
But some problems cannot be fixed. Some women and children and men too are not safe when legally chained to an abuser. The legal, psychological and emotional barriers are high enough for getting these victims to safety. Let’s not make it any worse through some misguided attempt to keep the divorce rate down.
Myra Chack Fleischer founded Fleischer & Associates in 2001 and serves as Lead Counsel with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in the Communities Digital News. Follow Fleischer & Associates on Facebook and on Twitter @LawyerMyra
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