Many refuse marriage counseling discount

By Rozella Hardin

STAR STAFF
rhardin@starhq.com

   A new state law designed to encourage couples to seek premarital counseling is having a rocky honeymoon.
   Many local couples are paying the increased fee of $92.50 instead of seeking counseling and the discounted price of $32.50 according to records in the office of the Carter County Court Clerk.
   Some cost-conscious couples are going to North Carolina and Virginia, where a marriage license with no counseling requirement costs $40 and $30, respectively. A similar proposal failed in Virginia earlier this year.
   Suzie Wallace, Deputy Carter County Court Clerk, said for the first half of July -- the first month the law was in effect -- 13 couples paid the $92.50 rather than undergo counseling. "While a number of couples are paying the increased fee, this could be because many couples already had planned their wedding when the law went into effect. And since a license is good for only 30 days, some perhaps could not work the counseling into their schedule. We might see more couples taking the counseling in the months to come," she said.
   Wallace said some couples have told office personnel it is cheaper to pay the additional $60 fee than to pay for counseling. "And then, some would just rather pay the increased fee than undergo the counseling," she said.
   Revenue generated by the increased marriage license fee will fund eight different programs including community services to families. However, Wallace, said the local office receives only $2.50 from the increased free.
   State Rep. Bob Patton, R-Johnson City, sponsor of the bill, has sent a letter to clergy to explain that their participation is voluntary. The letter, according to one local pastor, also offers suggestions on what premarital counseling should include. For example, he said, counselors may discuss conflict management, communication skills, money management and parenting. "Hopefully, the letter will clear some of the confusion surrounding the law," Patton said in explaining his purpose for writing it.
   The letter also clarifies who can provide marital counseling. "If they are a counselor and they consider themselves qualified, that would be sufficient," he said. "It's a loose definition."
   Patton said one of the reasons he promoted the bill was because of the number of divorces in the state. He said Tennessee had about 85,000 marriages and 33,000 divorces in 1999, giving it one of the highest divorce rates in the nation.
   Patton said the idea for the law came from Florida, where similar legislation has been in place for about three years.
   Once a couple has applied for a marriage license, Wallace said they are told they can save $60 on the fee if they can certify that they have had four hours of marriage counseling. "The couple is then given a form to be filled out with their names, the type of course they attended and the number of hours of counseling they received. The course provider also signs the form," she said.
   Rep. Patton noted that many ministers won't marry a couple until they've sat down for marriage counseling.
   Patton said studies show children are most affected by divorce. Beginning in January of last year, divorcing couples with children in Tennessee must go through a parent education seminar and create a parenting plan that details the custody agreement. Some of the money from the increased marriage fee goes to a fledgling state program that requires divorcing parents to meet with a mediator to devise a parenting plan for their children.
   According to U.S. Census figures released earlier this year, in Tennessee, 11.3 percent of people 15 years old or older are divorced, topping Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Only Florida was higher with 11.6 percent, which encourages counseling before marriage with a reduced marriage license fee.
   Overall, Tennessee's divorce rate increased from 9.5 percent in 1990 to 11.3 percent in 2000.
   Rep. Patton said usually two things cause divorce. "The number one thing is financial problems. The other thing that contributes sometimes is boredom."
   Rep. Patton is hoping that more couples will undergo premarital counseling and that the increased marriage license fee will encourage it.