MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 26, 2014

Hulbert pushes longer wait for divorce seekers

His goal is to reduce rate of breakups

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— A local lawmaker filed a measure that would double the waiting period for most Oklahoma couples seeking to dissolve their marital relationships.

District 14 Rep. Arthur Hulbert, R-Fort Gibson, said he would propose the amendments in an attempt to curb divorce rates and reduce poverty. Researchers, however, have cast doubt upon the premise.

Hulbert said his idea was driven by his concern about the state’s high divorce rate. Census data show there are 13 divorce actions filed for every 1,000 Oklahomans, ranking it with Arkansas, Alabama and Kentucky as having the second highest-divorce rate in the country.

“Oklahoma has one of the highest divorce rates in the country, and it’s one of the easiest places to get a divorce,” Hulbert said. “I looked at other states to see what the divorce rates were and see if they had waiting periods.”

Hulbert said his efforts turned up several states with waiting periods ranging from a year to two years. Some of those have lower divorce rates, but others have divorce rates that equal or only slightly lower than the divorce rate in Oklahoma.

Arkansas, for example, requires a pre-petition waiting period and post-petition waiting period that exceeds Oklahoma requirements. Filing requirements in Arkansas are considered considerably more restrictive than in Oklahoma, yet the divorce rate in both states, according to the most recent census data available, remained the same.

Stephanie Coontz, research and public education director for the Council on Contemporary Families, said she is skeptical Hulbert’s proposal would achieve his desired results and expressed a more serious concern. Citing a “classic study” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that looked at easing restrictive divorce laws, Coontz said that although divorce rates tended to rise afterward, suicide rates among wives and domestic violence fell at an even faster pace.

“So, when you think about trying to reverse the ease of divorce, you may be incurring some real risks,” said Coontz, a history and family studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. This could be more true “in times of economic stress, which do tend to increase domestic violence.”

Hulbert said House Bill 2398 would add two exceptions to the longer waiting period. In addition to abandonment, extreme cruelty, habitual drunkenness and other exceptions, Hulbert said his bill would provide waivers in cases in which one party has been convicted of child abuse or any crime defined by the Domestic Abuse Protection Act or when adultery is involved.

“I feel like we have a bill that will help strengthen families and give them time to rethink reconciliation,” he said, adding that doubling the waiting period to six months is reasonable. “I believe marriages have value, and I think society only benefits if we strengthen the family.”

Muskogee County District Judge Mike Norman said he has no problem with a longer waiting period, especially when minor children are involved, even if the elongated wait imposes an economic hardship on the divorcing parties.

“The worst part of my job is deciding the fate of minor children,” he said, noting he has seen only one case in which a couple reconciled before their marriage was dissolved.

Norman was more hesitant about embracing a bill by Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, that would eliminate incompatibility as grounds for divorce. That is the basis for Oklahoma’s no-fault divorce.

“I have mixed emotions about that,” he said about Roberts’ HB 3115. “The good news it would make divorces harder to get. The bad news is it would take a lot longer, cost a lot more money, and tie up the courts.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.