Parents seeking divorce in North Dakota should have to wait at least six months and undergo mandatory counseling under a bill that met stiff opposition from attorneys in a state House committee Monday.
"This bill has the best of intentions but it's like requiring people to buckle their seat belt after the accident has happened," State Bar Association director Bill Neumann told the House Judiciary Committee, which took no action.
Rep. Naomi Muscha, D-Enderlin, introduced the bill and said it's easier to get divorced in North Dakota than it is to get married. The bill is aimed at helping parents understand their responsibilities before the split is final, she said. Domestic abuse cases are exempt from the waiting period.
"The state of North Dakota has a vested interest in doing what it reasonably can do to ensure parents have some vital information as the proceed through the process of ending a marriage," Muscha said.
State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said the measure is an attempt to address the needs of children affected by a divorce.
"It's not drafted to affect the process of divorce," Mathern said. "It addresses the issue of children after divorce."
A similar measure failed in the Legislature two years ago. That bill required a yearlong wait and 10 hour-long counseling sessions before the split was final.
Sherry Mills Moore, a Bismarck divorce attorney, said many couples seeking divorce have already had counseling. Delaying a divorce leaves children in a "state of flux," she said. Moore also said counseling is expensive and many residents don't have easy access to such services.
Neumann, a former state Supreme Court justice, said the bill "will place and additional emotional and financial burden on couples, the great majority of whom are already stretched to the breaking point or beyond, both emotionally and financially."
The state Bar Association runs a free or reduced-fee legal program for people who can't afford to hire a lawyer, Neumann said. Last year, 239 people were placed with volunteer lawyers while 383 had to be turned away due to lack of attorneys, he said.
"Almost every one of those 622 cases was a divorce case and none of them could have afforded counseling," Neumann said.
Tom Freier, director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said the state averages about 4,200 marriages annually compared with 1,900 divorces. About 900 divorces in North Dakota each year involve children, he said.
Nineteen states have some type of required counseling before a divorce is granted and North Dakota should join the list, Freier said.
"We believe that adoption of (the measure) would have the effect of preserving some marriages which otherwise would end in divorce and the result would be positive for the couple and their children, Freier said.
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