SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Marriage Commission is making a push with state legislators to incentivize taking a premarital education course by offering $20 off the cost of a marriage license.
The effort is being spearheaded by former Utah first lady Jacalyn Leavitt, who is also the honorary chairwoman of the commission and who says adjustments from last year's legislation have her confident it will gain the support of lawmakers in 2018.
"The support has been tremendous" throughout meetings with about a dozen legislators, Leavitt told KSL.
About 30 percent of Utah couples currently take premarital education courses. "Our (initial) goal is definitely to increase that by 10 percent," she said.
"Couples who participate are three times more likely when they run up to a difficulty in their marriage to get help … perhaps a counselor, a therapist," Leavitt said, and to believe they "can get skills to work" through their problems.
Twenty dollars from the licensing fee paid by those who did not complete a premarital course would be assigned by the bill to fund other marriage education services run by the Utah Marriage Commission, an advisory board whose members are appointed by the governor and which serves as part of the state Department of Human Services, Leavitt said.
She cited an estimate by Alan Hawkins, a BYU professor in human development and family studies, that if the required education reduced the divorce rate by 10 percent in Utah over five years, that would equal 500 fewer couples splitting up in that time and by extension saving the state $9 million.
Those figures make up "a value statement that makes this especially appealing," Leavitt said.
She said nine other states have incentivized premarital education courses, and two of them — Minnesota and Oklahoma — have collected data showing a 20 percent jump in people who get that education as a result.
Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Holladay, an appointee to the Utah Marriage Commission, said the benefit to the state is clear in both dollars and in marriages saved.
"When we looked at the data in terms of the societal cost of divorce — you know, the family disputes, the child custody issues, and so on — it's an enormous cost to society both financially and just the overall effect on children and women who live in poverty after divorce," Spackman-Moss told KSL. "Making some kind of incentive for these couples just by getting a little bit of a break on their marriage license … I think is an excellent idea.
"I think it could benefit anybody getting married, really."
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, and Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, are expected to be the sponsors of the legislation. However, the bill's text has not yet been publicly released.
Similar legislation from those two lawmakers failed to make it out of the state Senate last year after concerns were raised about its implementation at the county level and exceptions to course requirements carved out on religious grounds, according to Leavitt.
The language from last year's measure said "religious organizations … are exempt from the content requirements" with regard to premarital courses described in the bill, but still mandated that they include six hours' worth of course material.
Religious organizations providing premarital education would have been exempt from requiring four main curriculum concepts: commitment, effective communication, problem-solving skills with finances and other issues, plus abuse and violence prevention.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the religious exemption is why she voted against the earlier version of the bill in the Senate.
"If it's going to have the stamp of approval of the state, everybody should be meeting the requirements," Escamilla said.
Leavitt said the intent was to not force the hand of religious organizations' curriculum. But after talking with faith leaders this year, she said it was decided that none of the mandated topics were out of sync with what religious organizations were already teaching in premarital classes anyways, voiding the need for an exception in the first place.
With the exception for religious organizations removed, Escamilla said, the premarital education incentive bill is something she can support.
"To me, I think it's always good to educate people. This is a very important decision (couples) are making," she said. "I would be supportive of the bill unless there's another problem."
Couples can also qualify for the incentive if they took a qualifying course from a nonreligious organization, including by using a course called ePREP offered on a website called www.lovetakesearning.com, which the state helps engaged couples use for free.
County clerks also expressed concerns that a two-tiered marriage license payment system would magnify and complicate their workload associated with processing licenses, in part by requiring extra work to screen for who had taken the course and who had not, Leavitt said.
She said she expects the 2018 bill "resolves that issue" by opening implementation of the $20 license incentive for counties only when they have moved their entire license application system online, which she said leaves the fee screening task to a web-based system.
Scott Hoglesen, chief deputy clerk/auditor in Utah County, said the timing is good for counties considering simplifying their marriage license protocols by putting registration online.
Without the process being moved online, "(for) the smaller counties, I think, it's more burdensome to make changes like that," Hoglesen said of moving to a two-tiered marriage license fee system.
"The burden would have been higher on them."
Leavitt said Utah, Weber, Washington, and Iron counties are expected to be the first in the state to move the process online, beginning in 2018. Hoglesen expects others will soon follow.
"I think as it goes and it's successful and it's popular with the public … more counties will come on," he said. "I think that's just a natural thing."
Leavitt said fees for a marriage license vary widely across Utah, with a price of anywhere from $30 to $55 from county to county.
Spackman-Moss said she's confident the bill will pass because county clerks have had their input this year and the new legislation has "allayed their concerns enough."