Proposed language for pre-marital education provisions of divorce reform, covenant marriage or premarital education bills

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By John Crouch, Executive Director, Americans for Divorce Reform
New Edition April 9, 2001
If there is to be legislation on pre-marital education, this is how we would do it. If such legislation excludes or regulates the clergy, or does not have a pregnancy exception, it is not worth doing. Excluding marriage educators or lay religious trainers is also a big mistake. Imposing a waiting period is optional, but it too should have a pregnancy exception. Also, as our name indicates, we would prefer to see such legislation as part of an overall divorce reform bill, rather than by itself.

Instead of requiring pre-marital counseling for covenant marriages, this proposal strongly encourages premarital education for all marriages. It seeks to maximize the availability of premarital education and skills training, and to minimize bureaucratic barriers between premarital education providers and couples who seek premarital education. It includes optional language imposing a one-month waiting period for marriage, which can be waived in compelling circumstances or once premarital education or skills training is obtained.

Even couples who are without the guidance of a minister should be able to find competent pre-marital training. One of the best places to go to find such training is the nationwide directory of marriage educators maintained by the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education at For reasons of quality, practicality and convenience, people should be allowed to use this Directory, which is available free on the world wide web, and others like it.

Premarital education is not limited to therapy or "marriage counseling". Many of the most effective providers of it are not licensed or degreed family therapists, counselors or social workers. Their training and accreditation is provided by the dozens of marriage education programs that have been developed in recent decades and continue to evolve. Many providers are volunteers or do it as a second, part-time job. Consolidated state licensing and regulation is unnecessary and would only stifle the availability and improvement of this vital public service. In fact, if governments, or semi-governmental professional self-regulatory bodies, gain any role in regulating counseling content or techniques, the resulting product will end up reflecting narrow or politicized values that are at odds with the values and practical needs of most couples.

a. Marriage education or training. Marriage education or training required by this Act may be provided by any of the following:

(i) An official representative of a religious institution, or any clergy person authorized to perform marriages, or his or her designee (including mentor couples or other lay volunteers, if working in a clergy-supervised program).

(ii) Marriage education providers or programs listed, funded or authorized by (a) The United States Department of Health and Human Services; (b) The United States Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service; (c) The United States Department of Defense and the individual military services of the United States; (d) any other federal, state or local government agency or court; or (e) Smart Marriages / The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education ( or any of its component programs.

(iii) Any marriage education provider or program approved by the person performing the marriage.

(iv) Marriage education or skills training providers listed in any other on-line or printed directories whose use has been authorized by the Clerk of the Supreme Court.

(v) Marriage education or skills training providers listed in Directories which shall be maintained by the local court clerk's office or other office where marriage licenses are obtained. Each such Directory shall be a binder in which the clerk may place the names of local providers and materials sent by them; copies or internet web site addresses of other lists or directories authorized by this Act; printouts of local sections of internet on-line directories; and other materials or lists that the clerk deems suitable.

b. Proof of completion of marriage education or skills training, or marriage counseling, for all purposes for which it may be required under this Act (and not only in this section), shall be submitted as follows:

(i) Proof of completion of training should be signed by a provider, on the stationery, or other form or certificate, that is used by the provider, program or sponsoring institution, but it need not be notarized.

(ii) If the provider is not yet in the Circuit Court's Directory and appears to the Clerk or Deputy Clerk to be qualified as a marriage educator under the terms of this Section, the Clerk or deputy may add the provider or the program to the Circuit Court's directory (regardless of whether the provider or program is already in another on-line or printed directory or is clergy).

c. (i) Whenever anyone contacts a Circuit Court Clerk or Deputy Clerk seeking a marriage license or celebrant, or anything else preliminary to marriage, or to file for divorce, legal separation, child custody or support, the Clerk or deputy shall ask if the couple have gotten or are getting marriage skills training, and from whom.

(ii) If they have not, or if the answer is vague, the clerk or deputy shall inform such persons that training may be available from clergy, or from programs offered by religious institutions, and that both non-religious and religious marriage educators are available from the providers and directories that are authorized by Subsection (a) of this Section (above).

(iii) The clerk shall do this with all persons described in Paragraph (c)(i), regardless of whether they are legally required to obtain any such training.

d. Whenever marriage skills training is available in a geographic area, information on what it is, where to get it, and why, shall be made available to the public at all:

(i) places where marriage licenses are applied for

(ii) offices of civil marriage celebrants

(iii) governmental offices that offer family services or counseling, including any that provide services to single or married parents or to newly-released former prison inmates

(iv) court clerk's offices that deal with domestic relations or juvenile delinquency cases.

(v) providers of court-referred or government-referred divorce education, parenting education, or custody education programs.

e. If the marriage education is provided as marriage preparation, the couple shall undergo the training together. If it is required by state law or court procedures as a prerequisite to divorce, the individual parties may undergo it separately and need not both choose the same program or provider.

f. Waiting Period. A couple seeking a marriage license (or one of the couple) must contact a Circuit Court clerk or deputy clerk, in person or by phone, one month before the wedding, to announce their intention to marry.

g. The clerk or deputy shall waive the waiting period requirement:

(i) if the couple has received marriage education or skills training together as described above in Subsection (a) of this Section; or

(ii) if and when the couple thereafter completes such training; or

(iii) if there are compelling circumstances, such as pregnancy, terminal illness, or imminent transfer to a war zone. No record available to the public shall be made of the clerk's decision to waive the waiting period for compelling circumstances. Proof requirements for compelling circumstances are at the discretion of the clerk or deputy.

h. Once training has been completed, even if the waiting period has not yet run, the license may be issued and the marriage celebrated.



Section a(i): Each state has constitutionally-tested language it uses to describe clergy or marriage celebrants in its statutes. You should use the language already used in your state's code, and then add " or his or her designee". Here's why to add that last bit: Many churches provide a mixture of clergy and lay counseling. This includes churches that are part of the Community Marriage Policies promoted by Marriage Savers, Inc.

Section a (ii): Family support centers go by different formal names within the various branches of the military; thus the term is used generically here and the actual office providing the counseling may have a different name.

Section a(iii): All directories listed here are approved by, and accessible through,

Sections e and g(i) require the couple to undergo the training "together." This means that for most couples, having taken family life education classes or the "PARTNERS" program in high school would not be sufficient, even if the programs are listed in the approved directories.

Definitions: Terms such as "clerk", "Circuit Court" and "Supreme Court" are used simply because those are the terms used where I practice, in Virginia. Terms such as "training," "premarital training" and "providers", when used alone, are intended to be fully interchangeable with the longer phrases used earlier in the Section, "Marriage education or skills training" and "Marriage education or skills training providers". The shorter versions are used in parts of the Act that tell Clerks and deputies to tell couples certain things, so as to make such communication between court employees and the public as brief, intelligible and informal as possible.

If this is to be used as part of a Covenant Marriage bill, we have additional provisions that would be included on how the couple would make and record their choice, in our model draft of Classic Marriage at See also A Friendly Critique of a Typical Covenant Marriage Bill.

-John Crouch, Americans for Divorce Reform

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Originally posted and maintained by Americans for Divorce Reform; now maintained by John Crouch. You can call me at (703) 528-6700 or e-mail me through my law office's web site.