Utah legislation would require classes before filing for divorce

December 12, 2013


Divorce rate per 1,000 people, by state. (Source: Centers for Disease Control.)

Update: A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote to Gov. Gary Herbert.

A Utah state lawmaker has proposed a measure that would require a married couple to complete a mandatory course before filing for divorce, toughening what are already some of the strictest divorce rules in the country.

Utah already requires parents who have petitioned for a divorce to take an hour-long class that the state says provides information about the impact a divorce can have on children and about alternatives to divorce. Any Utah residents filing for divorce must wait 90 days for the legal separation to be finalized.

But under the new proposal, first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, the partner petitioning for divorce would have to take the class before filing if the couple has a child under the age of 18. The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Nielson (R), would require the other partner to take the class within 30 days of a divorce petition being filed.

Partners who are victims of domestic abuse would be exempted from taking the class — if they can provide proof of a protective order, a police report alleging domestic violence or a letter from a domestic violence shelter. Privacy advocates said they were concerned that requiring documentation could dissuade some victims of domestic violence who don’t report incidents to police.

If the bill passes the legislature and is signed by Gov. Gary Herbert (R), there would almost certainly be a court challenge, according to Rick Schwermer, an official with Utah’s Administrative Office of the Courts.

“The fundamental issue is an open-courts issue. The Constitution says the courts are open to everyone,” Schwermer told the Tribune. “From a practical perspective, we’re putting our clerks in the position of having somebody coming in who is finally, after all of the years and whatever issues, gotten up the nerve to bring in their petition for divorce, and we’re going to say: ‘Sorry, I see that you didn’t take the course yet. You have to go away and do that before you come back.’”

Even with the current mandatory classes, divorces in the state have spiked since 1987, when Utah became the 49th state to allow no-fault divorces (only Arkansas waited longer to grant no-fault divorces). In 2010, a Tribune review found 14,627 divorce cases, an all-time high.

Iowa has the nation’s lowest divorce rate, at just 2.4 per 1,000 people, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control in 2011, the last year for which data are available. Illinois, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia all have divorce rates under 3 per 1,000 people. Nevada has the nation’s highest divorce rate, at 5.6 per 1,000. Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arkansas all have divorce rates over 5 per 1,000.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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