Oklahoma bill backs more marriage counseling, stricter standards for divorce

Rep. Mark McCullough with his family
Rep. Mark McCullough with his family


In a proposal aimed to reduce an extremely high divorce rate, an Oklahoma state legislator has introduced a bill that would reward engaged couples who obtain more pre-marital counseling and would require pre-divorce counseling for troubled marriages. It also creates “covenant marriages” with stricter standards for divorce.

Oklahoma ranks in the top five nationally for currently divorced men and women.

"State government currently spends hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with the fallout of divorce – exponentially more than it does supporting marriage," Rep. Mark McCullough, sponsor of the bill, said in a Jan. 13 statement.

“If we can encourage more couples to obtain counseling and carefully consider their decisions before entering into this supposedly life-long commitment, I believe we can drive down our divorce rate, save taxpayer money and improve the lives of thousands of Oklahomans every year."

McCullough’s bill, House Bill 2634, would require at least eight hours of pre-marital counseling for couples before they can obtain a marriage license. Those obtaining a minimum eight hours of counseling would pay $50 for a marriage license, but those who obtain twenty or more hours of pre-marital counseling would pay only $5.

Studies report that divorce has a major impact on the cost of state government, largely through public assistance programs. A report from the Institute for American Values and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing,” conservatively estimates the annual taxpayer costs of divorce at up to $430 million for Oklahoma and more than $112 billion nationwide.

Rep. McCullough said his legislation is a “first step” to drive down those statistics. He added that research consistently shows premarital counseling to have a positive impact on marriage.

In addition to the pre-marital requirements, the bill requires couples with minor children to go through pre-divorce education classes before a divorce can be granted.

"Every couple with children needs to think hard about the impact their divorce is going to have for those children," McCullough commented.

His office reported that children from broken homes are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated, seven times more likely to live in poverty and three times more likely to be expelled from school. They are also more susceptible to substance abuse and mental health disorders.

Another provision of HB 2634 would create a special “covenant marriage” license. Couples would sign a declaration of intent saying that if marital difficulties arise “we commit ourselves to take all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling.

Couples bound by a covenant marriage can get a divorce for adultery, physical abuse of a spouse or child, abandonment, separation for a period of at least 18 months or fraud.

This type of marriage has been enacted in states including Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona.

A 2004 study reported that Louisiana’s covenant marriage law had a positive impact. While most non-covenant marriages did not receive pre-marital counseling, all covenant marriages did. The divorce rate among the latter couples was only 40 percent of that in non-covenant marriages.

McCullough noted that other state legislators such as Rep. Sally Kern have also filed marriage legislation, showing that they are taking seriously the problem of “family fragmentation.”

"By simply making the marriage process more deliberate, it’s been proven that you can help couples avoid mistakes that lead to divorce," McCullough commented. "Given the terrible impact divorce has on both children and parents and its cost to taxpayers, it is time the state provides incentives for strengthening marriages."

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