SALT LAKE CITY — A local politician is aiming to move up the timing of a class required for people with children to finalize their divorce.
The divorce initiation class has long been required by Utah law and was designed to inform people about how the legal process works, the implications of divorce and what options are available. Rep. Jim Nielsen, R-Bountiful, said currently most people put off the required class until the end of the divorce process, but that the class could be more effective if it were taken at the beginning.
“It is certainly more likely people would think about those other options if it was brought to their attention before the last week before they’re going to sign the papers," Nielsen said. "There’s a tendency once you go a certain distance down a path to say, ‘I’ve gone this far, I’m just going to finish it.’”
Nielsen has proposed legislation to require proof of class attendance before filing a petition for divorce with the court. Current law requires the class be taken within 60 days of when someone files for divorce, but there is no mechanism in place to ensure the class has been completed until the end of the process.
However, some have expressed concern with how the change in timing could affect people's access to the courts. The Utah State constitution provides that the courts should be open, said Administrative Office of the Courts official Rick Schwermer.
"Our concern is that our clerks are going to be put in an extremely difficult position when somebody who finally, after however many years or months, gets up the nerve to escape an abusive relationship, for example, and files for divorce and it’s an extremely emotional time and they come to the court for our help and to some extent protection and we say ‘sorry, you didn’t take the course. You have to go away,’" he said.
This would be the only case in which the court wouldn't accept a filing, Schwermer said. Even if someone comes to the courts now and there’s a filing fee they can’t or won’t pay, the court will still accept the filing.
Nielsen said they will protect people's ability to access the courts by ensuring they won't have to pay for classes and strengthening the exceptions for people who are afraid of their spouse. People with proof of an abusive relationship are exempt from the requirement to take the class.
Other judiciary concerns revolve largely around the administrative tasks clerks would have to complete. Schwermer said the proposed bill would require the court to write reimbursement checks to people petitioning for divorce who have taken the class. Currently, because the class is taken after a petition for divorce is filed a judge can determine if someone is unable to pay for the class so no one has to use money out of pocket.
“That again would be a completely unique situation where we would cut checks to patrons coming to the courts and we have some administrative concerns about that," he said.
Nielsen said he appreciated the feedback he has received about the bill and that he is sensitive to protecting people's concerns. At the same time, he said there is an advantage to people hearing information presented in the orientation class sooner rather than later.
"I think Utah has a unique opportunity in that (these laws) are in statute, but it could be implemented more effectively than they have been so far."
“I am convinced that there are a few who would ultimately make a different choice (about their decision to get a divorce)," he said. "I don’t know how many that would entail. Research suggests there are 15 to 20 percent of people who file for divorce where both parties express individually that they wish there was an opportunity for reconciliation.”
Utah county divorce orientation class instructor Alan Hawkins, also a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, has been assisting Nielsen with research for the bill.
Hawkins estimated about 80 to 90 percent of his students have told him taking the class was the last thing they were doing before finalizing their divorce. He said it struck him as odd that people would be given orientation information at the end of the process.
"The number one feedback we get from people taking the class is that is should be offered earlier at the beginning, not at the end of the divorce process," he said. "I don't think we're imposing much on the participants. Many of them say they wish they could have taken the class earlier rather than later."
Hawkins said he thinks the legal process can be a maze and a haze for many people, especially for those who are being left and haven't had as long to think about the implications of divorce. He said he thinks it is a duty of the state to provide basic information to these people.
Two classes are currently required by state law for those petitioning for a divorce who have children under the age of 18. Under the proposed bill the divorce orientation class would be required before filing for divorce, but the divorce education class, which focuses on co-parenting techniques, could be taken before or after the filing.
Hawkins said many other states mandate a co-parenting class, but that Utah is unique in requiring an additional hour of divorce orientation.
"I think Utah has a unique opportunity in that (these laws) are in statute, but it could be implemented more effectively than they have been so far," he said.