BY ERIN K. DOERING
One of the areas I practice in is divorce law. I have handled several divorces in my relatively short career as an attorney (almost six years) and I have come across a similar argument in two of them – covenant versus contract.
What do I mean by covenant versus contract?
Well, in most religions marriage is considered a sacrament – a covenant between the couple being married and God. For those who are sincere in their beliefs this covenant is sacred and cannot be interfered with by Man.
And then we have law and what the law says about marriage. In Michigan, a marriage is treated as a contract. This contract can be entered into by consenting adults and dissolved as needed. Additionally, Michigan goes a step further and is what is known as a ‘no-fault divorce’ state.
What do I mean when I say Michigan is a ‘no-fault divorce’ state?
If you are Michigan resident you may already be familiar with the term ‘no-fault’ because Michigan is a ‘no-fault’ automobile insurance state. However, ‘no-fault divorce’ has nothing to do with insurance. ‘No-fault’ in the divorce world is a rather nifty bit of law that occasionally comes in very handy when looking to obtain a judgment of divorce.
In general, a divorce may be granted if one party states there has been a breakdown in the martial relationship to the point that there is no reasonable hope of salvaging it (I am paraphrasing but I think you get the idea). In a ‘no-fault divorce’ state like Michigan the person seeking the divorce does not have to and is, in fact, prohibited from putting any specifics on the record regarding who was at fault of the marriage failing or giving reasons why they want a divorce. The State of Michigan has decided that if a person wants a divorce they are entitled to a divorce and there is no standard they have to meet or reason they have to give to obtain a divorce. Fault and reasons for the breakdown of the marriage may come into play if there are minor children involved or there are requests for monetary support but those are not issues typically hashed out on the record during the Pro Confesso or ‘Pro Con’ hearing (Pro Con being the name of the hearing usually associated with the entering of the final judgment of divorce).
Why is the ‘no-fault divorce’ important?
The ‘no-fault divorce’ is, in practical application, a means to streamline the divorce proceeding as well as a way to thwart a disgruntled or unrealistic person from holding up the judgment of divorce based on purely emotional arguments. I lump the idea of covenant versus contract into the emotional arguments category because it has no basis in the current laws of the State of Michigan. Judges will sometimes hear out a religious objection to divorce but they will still grant the divorce as long as the proper statutory procedures have been followed. Why? Because there is no statutory or case law basis to support an object to a judgment of divorce based on the objector’s religious beliefs.
Remember how I stated in Michigan marriages are treated as contracts? The dissolving of the marriage contract is treated the same as all other contracts – if a party wants out 9 times out of 10 they’re going to get out unless there is a sound legal argument against the dissolution.
There is certainly nothing wrong with holding religious beliefs. However, when the marriage just isn’t working out and you are served with a Summons and Complaint for Divorce you need to eventually get around to accepting reality and see the case for what it is – the ending of a partnership. If you are having a hard time accepting a divorce because of your religious beliefs you should consult with your pastor, reverend, etc. and see what needs to be included in any Judgment of Divorce to mitigate any religious issues in terms of re-marriage and sacraments. You should also consult with an attorney licensed in the state where the divorce is filed as soon as you are served with the Summons and Complaint for Divorce. There are timelines that must be followed if you are going to raise any objections to the divorce.
Remember – just because your marriage is ending in divorce doesn’t mean the world is coming to an end. It is a cruddy situation and no one expects you to feel good about getting divorced but after the initial, emotion-fueled reaction you need to take a step back and view the matter in a rational manner. Just because you don’t want a divorce doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get a divorce. Telling the Court you object to and will not consent to a divorce because of your religious beliefs will not stop the Court from entering a judgment of divorce. If one party wants a divorce then there is going to be a divorce – that’s just the way it is in Michigan.
My advice to a defendant in a divorce action would be to immediately consult with an attorney who is licensed in the state the divorce action is filed in. From there I would highly recommend retaining an attorney who can assist you in the process. An attorney doesn’t have an emotional stake in the divorce action and can often see reality with more clarity than a husband or a wife who is devastated after being served with divorce papers. A family law/divorce attorney can help you navigate through the Court system and fully represent your best interests when you may not be able to see what is right in front of you because of how emotional divorce can be. Your attorney may even be able to suggest ideas regarding how to handle the religious implications.
Undoing the ‘I do’ is usually way more complicated and costly than the ‘I do’ but sometimes it is the best option for all involved. Divorce isn’t a pleasant or easy process but with the right people in your corner you can make it through. And, at the end of the day, do you really want to stay married to someone who has made it clear they no longer want to be married to you?
Of course, all of my advice and comments are for information purposes only. This blog is not about legal advice and there is no attorney client relationship here.
My two cents worth. Take them as you will.