Utah Law Would Require Classes Before Filing for Divorce

A Utah state lawmaker wants to make it tougher for a couple to divorce in the Beehive state.

State Rep. Jim Nielson (R) has proposed a measure requiring a married couple to complete a mandatory course before filing for divorce. Utah already requires parents who have petitioned for a divorce to take an hour-long class that provides information about the impact a divorce can have on children and about alternatives to divorce, so this legislation would toughen what are already some of the strictest divorce rules in the country.

Under Nielson’s proposed legislation, the plaintiff in a divorce action would have to take the class before filing if the couple has a child under the age of 18, and the defendant would be required to take the class within 30 days of a divorce petition being filed.

Spouses who are victims of domestic abuse would be exempt if they can provide 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 said. “From a practical perspective, we’re putting our clerks in the position of having somebody coming in who has 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 Beehive 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, Utah had 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.

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