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Archive for Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Pointing fingers

February 6, 2002

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Couples shouldn't be forced to legally assign blame before they can obtain a divorce.

Preserving marriages, particularly for couples with young children at home, is a good thing, but forcing parents to become combatants before they can be divorced helps no one.

State Sen. Bob Lyon wanted to make it more difficult for couples with children at home to dissolve their marriages. He says no-fault divorce makes it too easy for couples to part company. The bill he has introduced in the Kansas Senate would end that by allowing no-fault divorces only for couples with no dependent children.

Lyon's intent probably is a good one. He wanted to make it more difficult to a parent to simply walk away from his or her family. But the unintended consequences of the bill could have a detrimental effect on a family that far exceeds the impact of a divorce.

His bill would prevent married couples with children from getting a divorce without first proving who's at fault. Those "faults" would include such things as "gross neglect of marital duty," mental illness, impotency, adultery, cruelty, substance abuse and conviction of a felony.

A spouse would have to make that case in court, which would require an attorney, and he or she would have to make public grievances that might be better kept private. As some observers have noted, the bill would be a boon for attorneys and private investigators, who would be required to find and prove the "faults" required to obtain a divorce.

The bill, Lyon said, is to protect spouses who oppose a divorce, as well as the children in the family, but is that really the case? How about a spouse who is the victim of abuse? His or her partner might well oppose a divorce, but who would be served by this marriage being preserved? Certainly not the wife or husband who is suffering abuse; definitely not the children who are forced to live in this household.

It's true that Lyon's bill would allow a divorce in a situation like this, but why should the state make it harder for this couple to divorce?

How about a couple that simply grows apart and is no longer compatible? Instead of just agreeing that neither is at fault but they would be better apart, one spouse would have to prove that the other is "at fault," according to Lyon's definition. Rather than separating amicably, they are forced to become adversaries.

What impact does this have on children? It certainly doesn't benefit the children to have one parent enumerate the other parent's faults as part of a divorce proceeding. Goodness knows, it's difficult enough for divorcing parents not to criticize each other without setting up a legal requirement for them to do so.

Not only would attorneys and private investigators see an increase in their caseloads, so would the state's already overburdened court system. Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, estimated the state would need another 29 judges at a cost of $6 million a year to handle the cases. He suggested the state might be better off encouraging couples to seek pre-marriage counseling.

Most couples don't approach divorce lightly. Even a no-fault divorce involves difficult and often painful decisions about child custody and property settlements. Placing additional legal roadblocks in front of people seeking a divorce only makes the process more difficult for everyone involved including the children Lyon is seeking to protect.

Lyon's bill was endorsed Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and advanced to the full Senate for debate. Hopefully legislators will look at all of the bill's consequences intended and unintended before they move it forward.

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