States May Force Couples to Wait Longer for a Divorce

Posted February 21, 2013 in Divorce Editors Picks by

Bride and groom on wedding cake split in half

Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Washington State is considering extending its statutory waiting period before couples can be granted a divorce to a full year. Currently, separating couples need to wait 90 days before a divorce can be finalized.

The law would include an exception for faster divorces if violent or sexual threats or attacks are involved against either the other spouse or a child.

North Dakota, which does not currently have any waiting period, is considering a similar measure which would impose a six month delay, as well as mandating spousal counseling before a divorce will be granted.

Supporters of the bills have painted them as efforts to save troubled marriages, citing studies that show higher rates of poverty and lower rates of achievement among children of divorced parents. 

“Increasing the waiting time for dissolution will be beneficial to families of our state and certainly will be beneficial to taxpayers of our state,” said the Washington bill’s sponsor, state Senator Don Benton.

However, some lawmakers oppose the bills for presenting unnecessary roadblocks to couples who want to get out of a bad marriage as quickly as possible.

Some professionals in the field are skeptical as well. “I think most family law attorneys would oppose the measure,” says Michael W. Bugni, an attorney with the Seattle-based divorce and family law firm Michael W. Bugni & Associates. “As a practical matter, most of our difficult divorces already take nearly a year to resolve due to court congestion. Rarely do the parties elect to call it off during that year.”

Couples are able to make up their own minds without intervention by the state, the attorney points out. “Most have already carefully weighed their options for reconciliation before a case is filed,” Bugni says. “Once filed, it is expensive and often emotionally painful, so those who can resolve their issues early should be permitted to proceed within the current 90 day waiting period.”


Cooling Off Periods 

Attorney Michael W. Bugni headshot

Michael W. Bugni

The data on whether a longer waiting period results in fewer divorces is not terribly conclusive due to the number of variables involved.

At least 22 states currently mandate waiting periods between filing for divorce and actually getting divorced, although many grant exceptions and variances for reasons like a fault-based divorce, domestic violence or if children are involved. Waiting periods range from as little as 30 days to as much as 18 months, with New Jersey, Connecticut and Arkansas all making couples hold on for the whole year and a half for some no-fault divorces. Some states mandate reconciliation counseling as well.

According to the U.S. Census, the divorce rate in New Jersey as of 2009 was 2.8 percent, one of the lowest scores around the country. Measured in a different way, New Jersey was recently heralded as the state with the lowest divorce rate in the nation, with only 9 out of every 100 adults a divorcee.

Connecticut weighed in with 3.1 percent, while Arkansas was 5.7 percent, the two states coming in on either side of the national divorce rate of 3.6 percent.

Supporters pushing the new waiting period bills have noted that most of the states with the highest divorce rates have a waiting period of only 30 days, or no waiting period at all. However, the high rate in Arkansas despite the 18 month wait is a reminder that many factors play into successful or unsuccessful unions. Marriages are more likely to last when they are between more highly educated people with higher incomes who wait longer to tie the knot, meaning divorce rates in the Northeast are lower across the board than most Southern states, regardless of waiting periods.

Of course, the rate of marriage in New Jersey and nearby states is also lower to begin with than in most of the rest of the country. It’s a known fact that you can’t get divorced if you don’t get married first — and if a marriage is doomed from the start, there might be no waiting period that can save it.

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