NORMAN — Divorces and marriage annulments are down across the country.
This may come as a surprise, since common thought is more people are ending their marriage to start anew. The data shows otherwise, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which tracks marriage and divorce rates nationwide and by state — has Oklahoma near the top of the list.
Oklahoma is third in the nation in divorce rate, with 4.4 per 1,000 people. It sits behind first-place Arkansas, with 4.8 per 1,000, and Nevada’s 4.6. While the numbers are dwarfed by those of the past (like Nevada’s 9.9 in 2000 or a 7.7 for Oklahoma in 1990), they’re still not good enough for people like State Rep. Travis Dunlap, R-Bartlesville.
House Bill 1277, authored by Dunlap and approved by the Judiciary-Civil and Environmental Committee by a 7-5 vote (State Rep. Emily Virgin, from Norman, opposed), adds barriers to using incompatibility as a reason for divorce. Dunlap wants to lower the divorce rate in Oklahoma by leading couples toward reconciliation or having them provide a more concrete reason for ending the marriage.
“The purpose is to reduce the divorce rate in Oklahoma,” Dunlap said. “Not every divorce is frivolous, but some are.”
Dunlap, who represents District 10, said he now does not expect the bill to see a vote in the House but is interested in continuing his efforts. He said the falling rate of marriages in the U.S. shows the institution as a whole is losing credibility.
That falling rate might also be one reason divorces are on the decline; less people are getting married. Cleveland County's marriage rate hit a five-year low, 5.7 per 1,000 population, in 2015; the divorce rate fell to 5.3, also a five-year low, according to the Oklahoma Department of Health.
“The bigger society impact is a lot of people aren’t getting married,” Dunlap said. “The institution is not held in high regard. Two years ago is when the threshold was crossed. There are more unmarried people than married people. I think that’s a huge sign that something’s gone wrong.”
The original HB1277 drafted by Dunlap made it impossible for a court in Oklahoma to grant a divorce for incompatibility if the couple met one of three criteria: if they had been married for more than 10 years, if they had a living child under age 18 or if either party involved objected to the divorce.
After passing through committee, this was changed slightly. Couples who fall into those categories can, under the current bill version, have a divorce granted by the court for incompatibility, but they must first go through an educational program about the impact of divorce.
Previously, couples only had to do that if they had a child under age 18, and the educational program was focused on the impact of divorce on children.
“I’d like to fix the divorce education class. I don’t think it’s working the way we want it to work,” Dunlap said. “What we have is district level, unequally applied and unequal quality across the state. We’d like to take care of that. It talks about the impact of divorce on children. It’s not just the impact on children, even though that is the primary interest of the state, but it has an impact on more than just the children. It has an impact on the couple and the community at large.”
The bill would also change language so the court can require both parties in a divorce to pay their own expenses, including attorney fees. However, if the evidence indicates one party caused the divorce, then that party must pay the other’s expenses. The party who caused the divorce also can only receive one-quarter of the “marital property,” and the remaining three-quarters will be awarded to the other spouse.
In order to cause the divorce, one spouse must have committed one of the divorce-able acts — adultery, impotency, “extreme cruelty,” drunkenness and insanity — for at least five years.
Under the original HB1277, couples meeting the three criteria would have had to argue one, or more, of these reasons in court to have a divorce granted. They still might if either doesn’t want to go through the education class in order to split over incompatibility.
Dunlap said while he understands the reasoning behind a no-fault divorce could be to avoid revealing ugly details of a failed marriage in a public court, the concern is outweighed by the consequences of ending a marriage.
He also said providing a reason may bring to light something that could otherwise be fixed through counseling.
“Incompatibility is used in the vast majority of divorces, and I’m thinking maybe some things are being covered up that shouldn’t be covered up — something where counseling can be used instead,” Dunlap said.