A House committee spent about two hours hearing testimony on a bill that would require a six-month waiting period and counseling sessions for a couple before being granted a divorce.
House Bill 1423 would mandate a minimum six-month wait for the granting of a divorce, with an exception made for cases involving domestic abuse. The House Judiciary Committee heard the bill Monday.
Under HB1423, couples would be required to have five individual or joint one-hour counseling sessions. Two of the sessions would be on post-marital financial planning and three on the impacts of divorce on children.
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said HB1423 is meant to address the aftermath of a divorce in terms of the impact on children.
“The primary focus should be on the children,” Mathern said. “This does not address the question of divorce.”
Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, asked about the counseling sessions.
“Is there a written curriculum?,” Delmore said.
Mathern replied that there isn’t and that is something that could be addressed in the bill. The language in HB1423 allows for counseling to be done by those including paid or volunteer counselors, clergymen, or other state certified or licensed marriage therapists.
Rep. Andrew Maragos, R-Minot, asked if it might be a better idea to conduct an interim study on the issue and then consider a more comprehensive bill in the future. Mathern replied that there are likely a number of studies that show the impacts on children in stable homes with two parents versus those in homes impacted by divorce.
“Is there a study need for this bill? I don’t think there is,” Mathern said.
Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance, testified in favor of HB1423.
“We do believe the state has a vested interest in this. Marriage is an institution that we have to work at,” Freier said.
Sherry Mills Moore, a lobbyist with the State Bar Association of North Dakota, spoke against HB1423. Mills Moore questioned the need to mandate counseling for those who already have worked out their financial issues and child visitation on their own.
“While you’re waiting six months, issues … fall apart,” Mills Moore said. “The waiting period of six months I don’t get.”
Mills Moore also said mandating counseling would be expensive for a number of people, especially if they’re going through financial difficulties. She also questioned the ability to get access to counseling in the necessary time frame under HB1423.
Bill Neumann, executive director of the State Bar Association of North Dakota, said making couples wait six months for a divorce was “like requiring people to buckle their safety belts after the accident.”
Neumann said most people seeking a divorce have likely exhausted all other options prior to pursuing one. He said by the time they’ve begun pursuing a divorce it’s likely too late for any chance of reconciliation. Neumann said the couples’ desire to go through with counseling also is an issue.
“Counseling only works if both parties are amenable to it,” Neumann said.
After further testimony, the hearing on HB1423 was recessed. The committee may reopen the hearing sometime Tuesday to allow a few individuals who weren’t able to attend Monday’s hearing to testify.
Sponsors of HB1423 along with Mathern are Reps. Naomi Muscha, D-Enderlin, Robert Hunskor, D-Newburg, Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, Dan Ruby, R-Minot, and Sens. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck ,and Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown.