Breaking Up Is Hard to Do in Arkansas; Why Divorce Laws Are Getting Stricter

A wedding cake with a difference. Many states are making it harder to divorce as Republians try to frame divorce as a family values issue. Phil Wilkinson/TSPL/Camera Press/Redux

At a time when millions of people are fighting for the right to get married, others are having to fight for the right to get divorced—in a more timely and affordable way. It's certainly become a more arduous task in recent years: Over a dozen states have recently introduced bills making it more difficult to get a divorce.

For example, there's a new measure in Oklahoma requiring parenting classes for couples with children seeking a divorce, and Arizona and Utah have passed laws in the past three years mandating counseling courses or longer waiting periods. Seeking a divorce in Massachusetts and have kids under the age of 18? You'll have to attend a six-hour parenting education course. Arkansas has a 540-day standard processing time for divorce, and a couple needs to have an 18-month separation before they can even file. From start to finish, a divorce there can take almost three years. Maryland, South Carolina and North Carolina aren't much better; each has a mandatory one-year separation or waiting period before you can even file.

Some attorneys and judges think parenting classes and waiting periods help diffuse highly charged situations and protect the children involved. But others think that in many cases, laws requiring waiting periods and mandated marriage counseling can have a negative impact. When there are issues like abuse, adultery, abandonment or other serious problems in a divorce, says Bari Z. Weinberger, a New Jersey divorce lawyer, "it's an insult to say to someone, hold on, I know you say you're going through hell, but here in our state, you will first need to wait for a very long time just so that we can make sure you really are.'"

There are plenty of people behind the new laws making divorce more difficult: The same groups and politicians that tend to come out against same-sex marriage are now taking on "divorce prevention" as another family-values issue to rally around. Several politicians, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, signed the controversial "Marriage Vow" document, drafted in 2011 by the conservative organization Family Leader. The vow called for "prompt reform of uneconomic, anti-marriage aspects of welfare policy, tax policy, and marital/divorce law, and extended 'second chance' or 'cooling-off' periods for those seeking a 'quickie divorce.'"

New York attorney Matthew Reischer supports the new laws and thinks divorce should be difficult. "I would prefer divorce were more arduous and cumbersome so that due care when marrying would be more intelligently practiced," he says.

Colleen Sheehy Orme, a national divorce columnist, doesn't blame the laws. She thinks the people getting divorced drag out the process because of spite or greed. "I believe it's the contentious divorces that tie up the legal system. In those uglier cases, divorce is essentially what I refer to as 'legalized bullying.' A spouse who is like a cat playing with a mouse."

Divorce typically churns up a lot of emotions, and even if the soon-to-be exes are on good terms, it's almost always a sobering event. "Perhaps more than any other area of the law, divorce invokes the most basic of human emotions: fear, anger and pain," says Peter Gladstone, a family law attorney in South Florida.

And that's a fundamental problem with divorce: The process dictates that two people who've decided they don't work well together must now attempt to peacefully divvy up every part of their lives: money, assets and children. No wonder it's so combative. Which is why many believe that the new laws in Oklahoma, Utah and Arizona aren't helping. Instead of trying to make a highly charged scenario easier to navigate, such legislation does the opposite. Lawmakers and advocates keep positioning waiting periods and parenting classes as beneficial to families, but in practice it just forces two unhappy people to stay together longer.

The good news: Not all lawmakers and states are attempting to save your marriage. California recently launched a pilot program, One Day Divorce, that helps couples finalize their divorces quickly, cheaply and, most importantly, out of the courtroom. According to attorney Rackham Karlsson, the cost of a contested divorce is around $15,000. "And that's just for one of the spouses," he points out. When you use the One Day Divorce program in Sacramento, the only costs are filing fees of $435 per party.

The program has been running effectively in Sacramento for two years. "Whereas divorce court frequently experiences negative vibrations, the litigants in One Day Divorce are universally smiling and overflowing with joy to the point of high-fiving and hugging their volunteer attorneys—and just as frequently their newly divorced ex," says James Mize, a supervising judge in the family law division at Sacramento Superior Court.

Getting divorce out of the courtrooms benefits everyone involved. The courts want it as much as the soon-to-be-divorced, so they can focus on the cases that truly need judicial intervention. And the couples just want to move on.

States aren't the only entities trying to make divorce easier. Web Divorce Prep is an online divorce documentation and record-keeping software platform that saves time by making spousal communication less antagonistic and simplifying the legal process. Through the app and online platform, users can keep track of children's custody and event schedules, alimony and child support payments, and reimbursable finances. The app also provides easy access to legal documents to streamline the divorce process.

Then there's Divorce Resort, which is exactly what it sounds like: mediation and arbitration conducted at a fancy resort. Founder Daryl Weinman, who has been a divorce lawyer for 17 years, hopes his concept will help make divorce less expensive for couples and a little more pleasant. The total cost for a two-day weekend is $10,000, including the hotel. The unyoking spouses stay in separate suites and throughout mediation never come into contact. After a few days, they leave the weekend with legally binding documents and a timeline they've set to execute the divorce. Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in family and parenting, is a fan of the concept. "Anything that can be done to ease the stress and conflict associated with this lengthy and life-altering process is not only quite wonderful but may also preserve the emotional and physical well-being of all involved," she says.

Tara Eisenhard calls herself a "divorce encouragist." She and her husband of two years recently got divorced in Pennsylvania, where the waiting period is 90 days. "My ex and I separated our assets between ourselves before I hired a lawyer to file," she says. "My divorce was simple and cheap. A few months, a few phone calls, some signatures and I was free!"

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of Bari Weinberger's views on mandated waiting periods and marriage counseling.