A revolutionary proposal that would take amicable divorces out of the courts has the backing of two Minnesota lawmakers who say that while they don’t intend to ask for a hearing this session, they want to start a conversation.

The “Cooperative Private Divorce” legislation would allow couples to form divorce agreements without filing with the court or needing a judge’s signoff. The traditional system would remain in place for others.

The bill's sponsors, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who was divorced a decade ago, and Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, who was a child of divorce, say their bill would mark the most significant change to divorce law since “no fault” divorce became law 45 years ago. The current process, Lesch said, encourages couples “to become opponents in a win-lose contest with high stakes.”

“The result is a toxic situation for everyone involved and also becomes incredibly expensive,” Lesch said.
Pappas said that involving the courts can often sour what began as cooperative marriage dissolutions. That said, it wouldn’t replace the current court system.

“It’s very very important to protect the few who need protection, such as battered women in particular who are victims of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their spouse, I don’t think we should hold all couples hostage for that.”

Under the proposal, couples seeking a divorce would begin an online orientation that and submit their “Intent to Divorce” to a state agency like the Bureau of Mediation Services, where the records would be kept private. After 90 days, they would submit a “Declaration of Divorce” containing their agreements. There would be no third-party review or judicial approval.

Pappas said she and Lesch do not intend to request a hearing for the bill this session, rather than to start a conversation this summer. Although advocates have no estimated cost on implementing the program, they say it could pay for itself by reducing caseloads in family court.

William Doherty, a professor in the Department of Family Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota and longtime marriage and family therapist, helped craft the legislation, which he called “radical reform.”
He said that although Minnesota has moved on from a system where one spouse must be found at fault for the divorce to be granted, requiring every marriage to go through a cumbersome court process and judge’s signoff to dissolve is just as archaic.

“We want to have an alternative to the court-based system in order to say to the public, this does not have to be a contest where two people who hire separate agents of their own individual interests and ultimately either fight it out in court or avoid court but still do a battle,” he said. “This is a cultural change we’re seeking as well as a legal change.”

Photo: Rep. John Lesch, flanked by Cooperative Private Divorce advocates, announces the legislation.

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