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ND bill would require counseling before granting a divorce

BISMARCK -- A North Dakota couple seeking divorce could have to wait six months and be required to attend a minimum of five marriage counseling sessions if bill debated Monday becomes law.

Lawmakers heard House Bill 1423 Monday, which Rep. Naomi Muscha, D-Enderlin, and other sponsors say is intended to benefit children caught in the middle of a divorce, who could see an increase in financial and mental health concerns as a result.

"Its an attempt at something to help you go in with your eyes wide open to be aware of possible consequences," Muscha said.

Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said national research has found divorce causes children to be more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems, higher rates of suicide, perform more poorly in reading, spelling and math and are likely to repeat a grade in school.

The bill requires five, one-hour, counseling sessions with a paid or volunteer counselor, clergy member, or any state-certified marriage mediator. Two sessions would be focused on postmarital financial planning and three sessions on the effects of divorce on children.

The bill does exempt cases with "substantiated allegations of domestic abuse."

But the State Bar Association objects to the idea, arguing that counseling is unlikely to save a marriage after the divorce papers have been drawn up, is a financial burden and can only complicate the current mediation process.

Neumann said the Bar Association offers a no-fee and reduced-fee legal service programs for people who can't afford to hire a lawyer. In 2012, the program placed 239 clients with volunteer lawyers and another 383 had to be turned away -- almost every case was a divorce case.

Muscha, and co-sponsor Sen.Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, drew many questions from the House Judiciary Committee wondering whether the state should get involved and if required counseling would place a financial burden on a couple.

The issue was brought up during the 2011 session in a bill that would have required counseling and a year-long wait. The bill was substantially amended and signed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple without the requirements, but included a legislative management study during the 2011-12 interim session. Mathern said the legislative management did not perform any studies.

Muscha said the new bill was drafted after a constituent, required to attend financial counseling while going through bankruptcy, wondered why it couldn't be required for divorce.

She said while the state currently regulates how a family provides finances for children -- child-care for instance -- and should be able to require counseling.

But Bill Neumann, a lobbyist for the State Bar Association, said the help that is offered by the bill, "comes too late to do any good."

"The disintegration of a marriage doesn't happen all at once; it takes a long time, usually many years," he said. "If counseling is going to save a relationship, it has to come while there's still some marriage left to save."

Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said the state has a vested interest since it provides both marriage licenses and divorce decrees.

Rep. Kim Koppelman pointed out comments he has heard that some say it's easier to file for divorce in North Dakota than get married.

According to state court documents, 2,447 divorces were filed with the state in 2012, up 130 cases from 2011.

The East Central Judicial District, which includes Cass, Traill and Steele Counties, saw 526 divorces in 2011 and 599 in 2012. The Northeast Central District of Grand Forks and Nelson counties had 250 filed in 2011 and dropped to 243 last year.

Mathern said the mandated counseling would provide spouses, who may be surprised by a divorce request, an opportunity for practical matters to be addressed.

"It doesn't require the unwilling spouse to change," Mathern said. "It only requires parents to have some individual help to figure out what their obligations are."