Couples would have a greater financial incentive to obtain marriage counseling prior to tying the knot under a bill filed by state Rep. Mark McCullough.
“State government currently spends hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with the fallout of divorce — exponentially more than it does supporting marriage,” said McCullough. “If we can encourage more couples to obtain counseling and carefully consider their decisions before entering into this supposedly life-long commitment, I believe we can drive down our divorce rate, save taxpayer money and improve the lives of thousands of Oklahomans every year.”
House Bill 2634, authored by McCullough, would require that all couples obtain at least eight hours of pre-marital counseling before they can obtain marriage license.
Couples that obtain the minimum eight hours of counseling would pay $50 for a marriage license.
However, couples that obtain 20-or-more hours of pre-marital counseling would pay only $5 for a marriage license.
“Miami is famous for quick and easy marriages,” said Ottawa County Associate Judge Robert Reavis. “We have famous athletes, college kids, who come down here on impulse and get married. I think anything we can do to delay impulsive marriage is not a bad thing.”
A recent study, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing” conservatively estimates divorce has a dramatic impact on the cost of state government - largely through public assistance programs — up to $430 million annually in Oklahoma.
McCullough said his legislation is a “first step” to driving down those statistics, noting that research has consistently shown premarital counseling has a positive impact on marriages.
The legislation also requires couples with minor children to go through mandatory pre-divorce education classes before a divorce can be granted.
“Every couple with children needs to think hard about the impact their divorce is going to have those children,” McCullough said.
Research also shows children from broken homes are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated, seven times more likely to live in poverty and three times more likely to be expelled and receive lower grades. They also are more susceptible to substance abuse and mental health disorders.
Reavis said more than 250 families have been served through Ottawa County’s parenting classes - many following a divorce.
“I try to follow up with these families,” said Reavis. “I have had far more people thank me than say ‘it was a waste of time’.”
Reavis said he is certain that most people truly do love their children and want what is best for them.
“Sometimes, they just don’t know what that is,” said Reavis.
House Bill 2634 would also allow couples to obtain a special “covenant marriage” license. Couples voluntarily choosing a covenant marriage would have to complete marriage counseling at least 15 days prior to applying for a license and would sign a declaration of intent declaring that if the pair “experience marital difficulties, we commit ourselves to take all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling.”
Under the bill, couples who have obtained a covenant marriage license can get a divorce for adultery, physical abuse of a spouse or child, abandonment, separation for a period of at least 18 months, and fraud.
Other states — including Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona — have enacted similar “covenant marriage” laws.
Research found the majority of couples with a standard marriage license did not receive pre-marital counseling, compared to 100 percent of couples with a covenant marriage licenses. And, most importantly, the divorce rate among couples with a covenant marriage license at that point was much lower than other couples — just 40 percent of the rate experienced by couples with a standard marriage license.
“While I support anything that would slow down the process for obtaining a marriage license, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for anyone to make it difficult to get divorced,” said Reavis. “Forcing two adults to live together can’t be a good thing.”
Reavis said in addition to imposing delays on marriage licenses and restricting the grounds for divorce, the state needs to allow district court more authority in distribution of property when a divorce occurs.
The appellate court would probably frown on a judge who ordered more than a 60-40 split of property, according to Reavis.
“Under current law, many divorces are granted on the grounds of incompatibility, or what we refer to as ‘no fault’,” said Reavis. “I think when there is obvious culpability on one side or the other - say physical abuse or adultery - the property should be divided accordingly.”
McCullough noted that other lawmakers, such as state Rep. Sally Kern, have also filed marriage legislation this year, showing legislators are “taking the issue of family fragmentation seriously.”
“By simply making the marriage process more deliberate, it’s been proven that you can help couples avoid mistakes that lead to divorce,” McCullough said. “Given the terrible impact divorce has on both children and parents and its cost to taxpayers, it is time the state provides incentives for strengthening marriages.”