Early in 2013, a new bill was put forth by a North Dakota lawmaker requiring parents seeking divorce to wait at least six months and pursue mandatory counseling before dissolving their marriage. Another new bill is being considered in Washington State that proposes extending the waiting period for granting a divorce from 90 days to a year, similarly aiming to diminish divorce rates. On Valentine’s Day, journalist Vicki Larson and co-chair of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, Beverly Willett, debated whether a divorce should be more difficult to obtain or whether the process is demanding enough already in the New York Times. At the center of these discussions, and of questions about whether divorce is too easily accessible or just obtainable enough, are no-fault divorce laws.
No-fault divorce laws enable a spouse to file for divorce without proving any wrongdoing or “fault” on behalf of either party in order to get a divorce. New York became the last state in the country to pass a no-fault divorce law in 2010. Previously, couples who wanted a divorce without proving fault had to be separated for at least one year before filing for a divorce, but as of October 2010, spouses could dissolve their marriage within a six-month period after declaring that their marriage is “irretrievably” broken down.
Part of the goal of passing no-fault divorce was to do away with lengthy trials, to reduce acrimony, costs, and unnecessary emotional pain. It enables couples to get a divorce without assigning blame, and sets the standard idea that if one spouse wants to terminate a marriage, then it should be ended. By putting forth this notion and reducing court battles over who’s to blame for the dissolution of a marriage, no-fault divorce laws have made it easier to get divorced in New York State, for better or for worse.
In the New York Times debate, Willett describes no-fault as an “on-demand system with ‘me’ at its core, permitting one ‘person’ to decide for all.” She criticizes the idea that if one spouse wants a divorce, the whole family is forced to deal with the consequences, whether or not it’s what the other spouse or children want. Larson, on the other hand, states that before no-fault divorce laws were enacted, many people and their children were stuck in unhealthy, unsafe marriages. Since no-fault, the number of female suicides have decreased, as have the amount of men and women living with domestic violence and the number of women being murdered by their spouses.
Both Willett and Larson make valid claims about no-fault divorce laws. Many no-fault divorces are unilateral, meaning one party to the divorce objects to terminating the marriage. Yet these laws have also caused a decline in rates of domestic violence by empowering individuals to leave an abusive marriage. By shortening the legal process of getting a divorce, they decrease the time families spend having court battles, which reduces emotional harm done to children and stress on spouses during the divorce process. They have helped reduce the caseloads of family courts, which may enable these courts to focus on more pressing issues such as domestic violence or substance abuse. In addition, they have led to divorce settlements being based on need and one’s ability to pay and contribute to their family’s finances, rather than on whose fault the divorce is.
It is interesting to note that the bills aiming to decrease divorce rates in North Dakota and Washington State do not do so by re-instating at-fault divorce laws, but rather by instituting longer waiting periods before a divorce can occur. Decreasing high divorce rates is a positive goal, given the importance of strong and stable families. Yet it is important that these measures do not result in children remaining in unsafe or unhealthy homes for longer than need be or prohibit parents from making their own decisions about what is best for themselves and their families.