Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why Do People Divorce, and Should We Make it Harder To Do?

A family law blogger colleague argues against Maryland’s pending reduction of the minimum waiting period for entry of a divorce judgment.

In support of his argument that this is a bad thing, he republishes a study which notes a statistical correlation between a state’s minimum time for completion of divorce proceedings and the divorce rate in the state (and also cites a similar correlation as to foreign countries).

Leaving aside a myriad of science/statistics problems with the underlying study, I’ll ask, provocatively, “So what?”

A state could reduce its divorce rate to zero, quite simply, by either making divorce a sufficiently long or expensive process, or by simply eliminating it completely, by repealing its divorce statute. That would not mean, obviously, that the families in such state would be “less dysfunctional”, or that the children in those families were better-adjusted, or anything like that.

The more significant argument is buried within the discussion: there is some reason to think that divorce has a better outcome for kids if we allow married parents to finalize their divorce more quickly if they reach a complete agreement regarding the custodial arrangements for their children (or stated more realistically, that we don’t allow couples to dissolve the marriage quite as expeditiously if they DON’T reach an agreed resolution of their issues).

There also is some evidence that suggests that some sort of dispute resolution counseling may both reduce the rate of divorces completed, and result in a substantially better outcome for the kids involved.

Which is lovely, except that the budget for any such intervention (custody mediation, dispute resolution education and counseling) has never been adequate, and at least in California, is now evaporating.

A while ago (in the last century, actually) I’d argued that the best way to lower the divorce rate was to remove some the impediments to divorce (cost, minimum waiting periods, congested court calendars, etc.) , but to add similar impediments to marriage. Originally my feeble attempt at Swiftian satire, I’ve now come around to the view that this is an idea worthy of serious consideration; if you put the counseling and waiting period in at the front end, the outcomes are likely to be far better at the back.

. . . or should we just say “. . . those that are married already. . . . . . shall keep as they are”?