Politics & Government

Until death do us part? Fort Worth lawmaker proposes plan to preserve marriage

Will no-fault divorces go away in Texas? A Texas lawmaker would like to see that happen.
Will no-fault divorces go away in Texas? A Texas lawmaker would like to see that happen. Getty Images/iStockphoto

State Rep. Matt Krause is happily married — and he wants other Texans to be as well.

So the Fort Worth Republican has devised a plan to strengthen marriages and families by making it harder for spouses to walk away from each other.

To do that, he filed House Bill 93 to eliminate no-fault divorce in Texas, a process that now lets a couple end their marriage without assigning blame to either spouse.

“No-fault divorce was a state-created mechanism created in the 1970s that led to more negatives than benefits,” said Krause, a father of five who has been married 14 years. “I want to recognize that the policy put in place in the ’70s isn’t working.

“It’s impacting the devaluing of families.”

Texas and other states began passing laws allowing no-fault divorce in the 1970s, following the lead of California, then governed by Ronald Reagan, a Republican lawmaker who himself had already been divorced.

New York became the last state to follow suit, signing a similar measure into law in 2010.

There were some concerns, particularly that giving couples an easy way out of marriage would cause the number of divorces to spike.

And they did — in Texas and nationwide. But the numbers have, for the most part, been coming down in recent years.

Now some fear that Krause’s proposal could make already strained situations more tense if couples must cite reasons for the death of a marriage rather than stating that the union just didn’t work out.

“We don’t want to go backwards to the bad old days,” said Steve Bresnen, an Austin-based attorney representing the Texas Family Law Foundation, which opposes the proposal. “The entire nation moved away from a fault-based divorce system precisely because of the ugly things that came from it.

“In order to obtain a fault-based divorce, … you have to prove they committed family violence, adultery or something. It would have the state forcing people into proving things about their marital partners that exacerbates the difficulty of the situation,” he said. “It makes it more and more difficult to work things out and arrive at a settlement.”

Divorce rates

In Tarrant County, the number of divorces has slowly climbed in recent years, contrary to state and national trends.

Last year, more than 9,200 couples ended their marriages here, records from the Tarrant County District Clerk’s Office show.

But across the country, the divorce rate has dropped.

The most recent information available shows there were 3.2 divorces for every 1,000 people in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s down from 4 divorces per 1,000 people in 2000.

In Texas, the rate was 4.6 divorces for every 1,000 people in 1970, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Then no-fault divorces were allowed and couples split at a record pace over the next three decades, with the divorce rate peaking at 6.9 divorces per 1,000 in 1981, state records show.

The rate began dropping in the late 1990s.

By 2014, the rate dropped to 2.7 divorces per 1,000, state records show.

‘Bad public policy’

Krause’s proposal would remove “insupportability” as a reason for divorce.

That option currently means any couple wanting to end their marriage peacefully would have to live apart for three years before seeking a divorce.

Couples who don’t want to wait that long would have to claim a reason, such as cruelty, adultery, abandonment, conviction of a felony or being confined in a mental hospital.

The point of this bill is that Texas made a bad public policy decision that weakens and devalues the family structure.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth

“The point of this bill is that Texas made a bad public policy decision that weakens and devalues the family structure,” said Krause, who noted that studies show that children from divorced parents struggle in areas such as education.

“Why wouldn’t we do everything in our power to avoid that?”

He said that with the insupportability argument, sometimes only one person wants the divorce.

“Any contract, agreement, usually takes both parties to stop it or to get out of it,” Krause said. “At no point in our legal system do we allow one person to rescind a contract. But no-fault divorce is the only thing that does.”

He said he realizes that this might create a tough situation for some, which is not the goal at all.

And it’s not an effort, he said, to prevent women from leaving abusive spouses.

“Some people say I’m trying to take relationships back to the 19th century,” Krause said. “I’m not trying that at all.”

He said he has been getting feedback from people across the country on his proposal — some who love it and some who hate it — which surprises him, since he filed a similar proposal in 2015 that received little attention and died before it could reach the House floor for debate.

“It has been crazy,” Krause said. “Some people say it’s the worst bill in the world. Others say ‘Thank you.’ 

Just in case this bill isn’t successful, Krause also filed a separate measure, HB65, that prevents divorces from being granted on the grounds of insupportability before the 180th day after the request was filed if there are children under 18 or still in high school living at home.

Mixed reactions

Elizabeth Parmer, a Fort Worth family law attorney, said she believes that Krause has filed an “absolutely terrible bill.”

“It is regressive in nature and it will do absolutely nothing to help families in Texas,” she said. “I think it will have the absolute opposite effect he’s intending.”

No-fault divorces are designed to keep courts from having to assign blame to one spouse or the other, she said.

In fact, that option often preserves some amount of peace in families and she’s seen many Tarrant County judges use it to benefit children of divorcing parents.

This proposal would have more divisive divorces with worse relationships between parents at the end and angrier people.

Elizabeth Parmer, a Fort Worth family law attorney

“This proposal would have more divisive divorces with worse relationships between parents at the end and angrier people,” she said. “I live this work every single day.

“I can’t think of a worse idea.”

Parmer and Brensen say there’s one group of Texans who would benefit from this proposal: attorneys.

That’s because couples would spend more time in court trying to prove “bad acts” of a spouse, Brensen said.

“That’s going to make it more difficult to work things out and arrive at a settlement,” he said. “The beneficiaries of that are the lawyers, for those who can afford them. And for those who can’t, they fall further and further behind in the civil justice system.

“We are decades past this in our social development,” Brensen said. “It’s really not for the government to make people maintain an intimate relationship when they’ve decided freely for themselves to terminate that relationship.”

But at least Krause’s proposal is a start, some say.

“How to reform our state divorce laws has been an issue for people on both sides of the aisle for many years,” said Jonathan Sanez, president of Texas Values, an Austin-based nonprofit “dedicated to preserving and advancing a culture of family values” in Texas.

“The overwhelming majority of divorces involve children — which is mandate enough for there to be thoughtful dialogue and thorough analysis on finding a workable solution for everyone involved,” he said. “We look forward to being part of that important discussion this session.”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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Marriage and divorce in Tarrant County and Texas

Year

Tarrant marriages

Texas marriages

Tarrant divorces

Texas divorces

2016

16,408

*

9,231

*

2015

15,762

*

8,892

*

2014

14,728

177,230

8,500

71,988

2013

14,137

179,173

8,286

76,423

2012

14,481

184,690

8,412

80,030

2011

13,731

177,219

8,449

79,024

*Not available

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services, Tarrant County Clerk’s Office, Tarrant County District Clerk’s Office

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