Will this Legislature uphold or undermine ideals of family?

Animating the Sutherland Institute’s efforts on family issues at the Legislature is the principle that individual family disintegration or failure to form is not the only problem our society faces. The increasing social and legal acceptance of family breakdown and weakness is also a very serious problem and contributes to individual tragedies.

In the 2013 session, the Legislature has the opportunity to bolster or undermine the ideals of family reflected in the state’s laws.

Senator Lyle Hillyard has sponsored a common-sense measure that would allow courts to consider whether a divorcing spouse engaged in abuse or adultery when deciding amounts of spousal support that will have to be paid on divorce. Current court interpretations prevent judges from adjusting amounts or denying alimony even when the money is to be paid from an innocent spouse to a former spouse who left the family to pursue another relationship.

In its initial hearing, the bill was defeated, seemingly because of concerns that the law might lead to a flood of litigation. As Senator Hillyard noted, this is a very unlikely scenario, since the bill would restore the law that existed before being modified by a court in 2009 and there was no surge of divorce lawsuits previous to that point. In fact, alimony is considered in only a minority of divorce cases. Hopefully, legislators will reconsider this bill.

Senator Stuart Reid is sponsoring a bill this year that would create a commission on intergenerational poverty tasked with determining what can be done to break the cycle of poverty that limits the prospects of far too many of Utah’s children. This is a laudable effort.

Senator Reid is also proposing a bill that would allow parents to receive information they need to take the responsibility for teaching their children about human intimacy rather than delegating that responsibility to public schools. Representative Jim Nielson has made a bill request for a law that would allow divorcing couples to be made aware of the consequences of the divorce decision before they file.

On the negative side, a bill has been proposed (yet again) that would dramatically alter Utah law so as to allow cohabiting couples to jointly adopt children. The data on outcomes for children raised in homes with cohabiting parents are far from encouraging. There is certainly no compelling reason why a mother’s boyfriend or partner should be able to circumvent current adoption law protections and plenty of compelling reasons why this change would be a serious mistake.

The law creates incentives, disincentives and sometimes perverse incentives for various decisions of citizens. It is time for a careful examination, perhaps by a special commission, of the incentive structure of our marriage and family laws. Those that incentivize strong and enduring marriages that link mothers and fathers to one another and to their children should be retained or developed.

Those that discourage family formation or encourage divorce by sending the false message that the decision to end a marriage has no consequences need to be eliminated.

This session is not too early to start this process.