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Archive for Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Lawmaker wants to make divorce more difficult

Legislation touted by sponsor as pro-marriage and pro-family; opponents say bill is ill-conceived

January 30, 2002

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— Breaking up would be even harder to do, if state Sen. Bob Lyon's bill makes its way into the law books.

In Kansas, getting a divorce is relatively easy. All it takes is a husband or a wife deciding to call it quits. Nobody has to prove anything.

Lyon, a Winchester Republican, says that's too easy. He's introduced a bill that would make it harder for one spouse to walk out on another.

The bill SB 173 had its first hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"If the intent of the Legislature is to restore moral and legal standing to the institutions of marriage and families, then I think we need this bill," Lyon said.

He urged the committee to pass the bill. Linda Elrod, a professor at Washburn University Law School, testified against it.

The bill, she said, is ill-conceived and, if passed, would do more harm than good.

"While the intent appears to be to provide children with two-parent homes, this bill will not accomplish the purpose," she said. "What it will do is bring back the adversarial tactics of (almost) 30 years ago."

Before 1969, divorces in Kansas hinged on a husband or wife being able to prove the other an unfit spouse.

That changed when lawmakers added 'incompatibility' to the list of grounds for divorce, making it unnecessary to establish blame. By 1982, when the law was further tweaked, no-fault divorces had become the norm. Most states have joined Kansas in adopting no-fault divorce laws.

Lyon says current Kansas law is a mistake.

"One spouse can walk away from another simply by declaring incompatibility, even though the other spouse may be against getting a divorce. This bill would protect that spouse against that," he said. "And it would protect the children in that marriage, too."

'Serious marital offenses'

The bill, Lyon said, would hold spouses accountable for "serious marital offenses" by giving their counterparts more 'bargaining power" in divorce proceedings.

"Somebody couldn't just walk away," he said.

If enacted, Lyon's bill would prevent married couples with children from getting a divorce without first proving who's at fault. These faults would include: "gross neglect of marital duty," mental illness, impotency, adultery, cruelty, substance abuse, abandonment for one or more years, conviction of a felony, and the wife's being pregnant "at the time of marriage by a person other than her husband."

Lyon, who's married, said that in 80 percent of the nation's divorces and in Kansas, presumably one spouse is against breaking up.

Charlie Harris, a Wichita divorce attorney and chairman of the Family Law Advisory Committee to the Kansas Judicial Council, said Lyon's bill would perpetuate bad marriages rather that salvage families.

"I can assure you that most people don't file for divorce the first time they think about it," Harris said. "By the time they file, an awful lot has already gone on."

Lawyers, investigators

Harris said Lyon's bill ought to be called the Lawyers Welfare Act because "to establish fault, accusations will be made and it will be incumbent upon the lawyers to prove those accusations in court, charging an hourly fee the whole time."

Lawrence family law attorney Sherri Loveland agreed.

"It'll be the Private Investigators Welfare Act, too, because we'll have to get somebody to peep in the windows," Loveland said.

Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, an opponent, said the state's Office of Judicial Administration estimates it would need another 29 judges costing about $6 million a year to handle the increase in caseload.

Instead of wiping out the state's no-fault divorce laws, Vratil said he'd rather encourage more couples to seek pre-marriage counseling.

"There are some things government can't do very effectively," he said, "and I suspect this human relationships is one of them."

Vratil, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he's not sure how the bill will fare in either the committee or the full Senate.

"I haven't polled the committee yet," he said. "But Senator Lyon deserves a response, so we'll work the bill, see what the response is and go from there."

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