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A friendlier path to divorce? Minnesota lawmakers are considering it

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, left, and Judge Bruce Peterson, right, speak in favor of a bill that would allow married couples to file for divorce outside of court on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota couples considering divorce would be able to bypass the courts under a proposal advancing through the state Legislature.

The proposal would give married couples the option to set the terms of their divorce and file for marital dissolution through a cooperative divorce program, which would be housed under the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services.

The bill's author Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said he wanted to offer couples the option to divorce without creating an adversarial relationship. He said his own experience getting divorced was the worst experience of his life and inspired him to propose another path.

Lesch said the family law system encourages spouses to work against one another as they write the terms of their divorce and lawyers working with them are encouraged to help them bring out the worst in one another.

“It is the principle that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” Lesch said.

Bill supporters including a Hennepin County judge, a family social science professor and a woman who said she went through an expensive and painful divorce were among those to support the bill.

“You should only have to use the court when you can’t agree on things,” Bill Doherty, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota, said. “The court system is designed for adversaries, not cooperators.”

Doherty said the bill would update family law for the 21st century and remove the “long shadow” cast by the court system on divorces across the state.

Opponents, including a spokesperson for family lawyers and an advocate for battered women, said the bill would cause serious problems for those facing domestic violence or other problems in a marriage.

“It’s going to be a magnet for a power-dominant spouse,” Michael Dittberner, an attorney and spokesman for family law organizations said.

Under the program, couples with minor children would have to take a four-hour parenting course before the commissioner would grant the dissolution of their marriage. And the agreement spells out that ending a marriage can have an adverse effect on children.

Couples would also have to read through cautions about taking up the cooperative divorce program. If they face coercion, are unlikely to reach an agreement or have more complicated financial or real estate matters to resolve, they likely shouldn't go it on their own.

Agreements on child custody arrangements and financial support would be enforceable under child support laws.

The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division advanced the bill to the House Ways and Means Committee.