COLUMBIA, S.C. — A proposed amendment to the South Carolina constitution would allow couples to divorce after 150 days of separation, rather than one year.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 12-11 on measures that would shorten the required separation for a no-fault divorce to five months, if voters approve the change in a referendum. The legislation narrowly advanced to the House floor through votes that did not follow party lines.
Opponents argued couples may reconcile during that year. They also feared further erosion of family values.
"Isn't this an example of a slippery slope we're going down?" asked Rep. Ralph Kennedy, R-Leesville. "Five years from now, is it going to be 3 months? In 15 years are we going to have drive-through divorces because they get in a fight that night?"
But House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, an attorney in family court, argued forcing couples to remain married beyond when they can get a legal settlement only adds aggravation and can make it more difficult on children, especially if it causes the animosity between their parents to grow.
Amicable divorces can usually be resolved six months after a couple has established separate residences. Contested cases that go to trial drag out for at least 18 months anyway, he said.
"Once they reach a settlement, they don't reconcile," said Bannister, R-Greenville. "If there's no end in sight because it'll take a year no matter what they do, for those who are reasonable and cooperate and don't want to be married, it makes sense to give them the ability to get divorced and get on with their lives."
The time to encourage family values is not when people have already called it quits, he said.
"We should be looking at ways to make marriages better, not hold you into one you don't want to be in," Bannister said. "It's too late for the General Assembly to say, 'Well, we're just going to make you and sentence you to a year and maybe you'll reconcile.'"
The chamber's top Democrat agreed.
The current law gives people incentive to lie to get a quicker divorce — in what can turn into a nasty public fight — since residents can get a divorce in 90 days on the grounds of adultery, desertion, physical abuse or habitual drunkenness, said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia.
"What this body is saying is, if you can just get along, you'll have to stay together for a year, but if you call him names, then maybe you can get it quicker," he said. "Why is it the state's business?"
He noted that a friend who got divorced in Georgia would still be married if he lived in South Carolina.
Georgia sets no time requirement for divorce due to irreconcilable differences, as long as one spouse has lived in Georgia for at least six months. Neighboring North Carolina, however, also requires a year of separation for a no-fault divorce.
Divorce was illegal in South Carolina until 1949, when it became one of the last states nationwide to allow it, though only on the grounds of adultery, desertion, physical abuse, or habitual drunkenness. The law didn't allow a no-fault divorce until 1969, when it set the required separation at three years. That was shortened to one year a decade later.