Two bills before the Utah Legislature this session are intended to strengthen the institution of marriage.
One, HB132, sponsored by Rep. Dixon Pitcher of Ogden, provides incentives for engaged couples to invest in premarital education or counseling by discounting the marriage license fee from $50 to $20 for those who invest in six hours of education or three hours of counseling. The education can be provided either in a religious or a secular setting. The bill also creates a three-day waiting period before a marriage license can be activated to prevent hasty decisions and instant weddings.
The other bill, HB290, sponsored by Rep. Jim Nielson of Bountiful, makes revisions to Utah's current divorce orientation education law that requires divorcing parents to take a brief class about the effects of divorce, resources for repairing the relationship, and the value of divorce mediation.
HB290 would require that the education be completed before filing for divorce and makes the course free. The mandate is waived for those who have experienced spousal abuse.
When marriages dissolve or fail to form, there is, of course, great personal loss. But there is considerable public loss as well. One economist conservatively estimated the cost to Utah taxpayers each year of family fragmentation at $276 million. The state has a vested interest in a strong institution of marriage and bears substantial costs when marriages dissolve or fail to form.
HB290 is perhaps the more controversial of the two bills. My current research documents how individuals at the crossroads of divorce are often overwhelmed by the paths before them and hungry for solid information. Divorce orientation seeks to help these individuals become less bewildered by providing them balanced, research-based information and helping them to feel more confident in the decision they make either to divorce or to keep trying to work things out.
Nevertheless, divorce orientation education could be implemented more effectively. The current required class comes too late to be fully effective. HB290 would require divorce orientation education before an individual files for divorce so that it has greater potential to provide valuable information before the momentum of the legal divorce process becomes too strong.
Emerging research documents that there is a small but important minority of couples who would likely benefit from a more careful consideration of reconciliation. A significant minority of divorced individuals have regrets about their divorce and wished they had had more information before deciding. Moreover, an important study in Minnesota documented that about 25 percent of individuals and about 10 percent of couples (both spouses) going through a mandated class felt that their marriage could still be saved. Making the class a pre-filing requirement is more apt to help these couples.
Getting better information to couples before they marry would also prevent more divorce. HB132 provides a modest incentive for engaged couples to invest in formal premarital education by substantially discounting the cost of their marriage license when they do.
Research indicates that premarital education can help couples learn better communication and problem-solving skills, strengthen commitment and help them deal with the inevitable problems of married life. Research also suggests that a small proportion of couples who take a marriage preparation class together perhaps between 10 and 15 percent decide not to marry, probably wisely. Despite the known value of formal premarital education and counseling, only about a third of Utahns do it.
These two bills are careful measures that respect people's personal choices while also encouraging individuals to make these choices with as much good information as possible. I encourage citizens to contact their representative and senator to ask them to support these bills.
Alan J. Hawkins is a professor of family life at Brigham Young University and a former chair of the Utah Commission on Marriage. The above represents his own opinions and not necessarily those of BYU or its sponsoring institution.