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State bill would force couples seeking divorce to wait 4 more months

PHOENIX - State lawmakers are moving to make couples who have decided their marriage isn't working wait four months longer to divorce.

And those with children would first have to go through education programs telling them about alternatives to divorce and the resources available to improve or strengthen their marriages.

Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, the sponsor of HB 2650, said she believes requiring couples to wait 180 days will result in more people deciding they actually should stay together. As proof, she said the divorce rate is lower in states with longer waiting periods than Arizona, where a marriage can be ended in as few as 60 days.

The most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show Arizona's divorce rate at 3.9 per 1,000 residents. The national figure is 3.6.

But Rep. Phil Lopes, D-Tucson, said that is confusing correlation with actual causation. He argued, and Barto acknowledged, there is no hard evidence that delaying the granting of divorce decrees actually keep couples married.

And Colleen McNally, the presiding family court judge for Maricopa County, warned that stretching out the process actually could be dangerous. She said domestic-violence attacks actually increase the moment a spouse tries to get out of an abusive marriage.

Barto said she is willing to alter her measure when it goes to the full House to keep the waiting period at 60 days for domestic-violence victims. But foes said that still doesn't answer the question of why the state should be prolonging decisions that may have been mutually agreed on by couples.

Rep. David Bradley, D-Tucson, said the Republicans who are pushing this bill are the same ones who sponsor legislation to keep the government out of personal decisions, such as a proposal by Barto to block the government from deciding what kind of health insurance people should have to obtain.

"But now we want the government to tell people - and assume that they are incapable of knowing when their marriage has gotten to the point where it's now irretrievable - we're going to tell them they have to extend it for longer periods of time because they are unable to make that decision for themselves," he said.

HB 2650 was written by the Center for Arizona Policy, which gets involved in morality-based family issues. Lobbyist Deborah Sheasby said the state has a legitimate interest in preserving marriage.

"Beyond just the social costs and community instability of families falling apart, there's even financial costs for the state, increased costs for social programs, increased law enforcement costs, increased education costs," she told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee. "Allowing couples more time to work out their differences is just common sense."

She also said in about four out of every five divorce cases, one spouse does not want out.

McNally said judges have just the opposite goal. They want to decrease the time it takes to dissolve a marriage. She said by the time many couples actually file the legal papers, they already have been through counseling and have decided that they cannot make the marriage work.

"We don't seem to see people coming to court who are hastily seeking to dissolve their marriage," McNally told lawmakers.

The fact that current law allows for a divorce in 60 days does not mean that's how fast they have to occur - especially if one party does not want out. Divorce attorney Maria Lawrence said anybody that "wants to drag their feet" can prolong the process through a series of legal maneuvers.

On StarNet: Find out what the Arizona Legislature and local governments are up to at azstarnet.com/news/local/ govt-and-politics


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