Arnold Rutkin
Arnold Rutkin ()

Gov. Dannel Malloy has signed legislation allowing some married couples in Connecticut to get a divorce within a month’s time and without a court hearing.

The measure, which had the backing of the state Judicial Branch and many family law attorneys, was approved by the House and Senate earlier this month.

The measure, allowing for nonadversarial dissolution of marriages, will take effect on Oct. 1. A Judicial Branch spokeswoman said forms pertaining to the law would be available on the court system’s website before that date.

Only those who meet certain criteria can file for these uncontested divorces: The couple must be childless and married less than eight years; neither party can have any interest or title in real property; neither party can have a defined benefit pension plan; and neither spouse can be receiving Social Security benefits. Also, the total value of their property must be less than $35,000.

The parties must submit financial affidavits with their joint petition, and the court may enter a decree of dissolution of marriage, without a hearing, if it finds the agreement to be fair and equitable. A disposition date could come as quickly as 30 days after the parties file a joint petition. As it stands, divorce actions now take a minimum of 90 days, and many take much longer.

Nearly 13,000 divorces were granted in Connecticut in the 2014 fiscal year, according to the Judicial Branch.

The legislation states that “the divorce decree is a final adjudication of the parties’ rights and obligations with respect to their marriage and property rights. [However], the bill does not prohibit either party from initiating an action to set aside the final judgment for fraud, duress, accident, mistake, or other legal or equitable grounds.”

Attorney Arnold Rutkin of Westport expressed concern that individuals won’t be getting the guidance and advice necessary to truly determine what would be a fair and equitable agreement. Even people with limited assets could benefit from getting advice on inheritance issues, for example, according to Rutkin.

“Maybe harm will be done and maybe it won’t—we won’t know,” said Rutkin, a former president of the Connecticut Chapter of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Attorney Shirley Pripstein, of Greater Hartford Legal Aid, told lawmakers during a public hearing in March she was concerned because there was no requirement for both parties to appear at a courthouse at some point in order for their identity to be verified. “There should be some requirement for identification of the parties prior to the entry of a divorce decree in order to prevent fraud,” she testified.

The language has since been amended to require that the joint divorce petition be notarized, so a notary will confirm people’s identities. “I think this partially addresses this concern,” Prip­stein said. “In this era of identity theft, if you go to a doctor’s office, they’ll ask you for ID. One concern was that one spouse could have gotten someone to impersonate the other spouse.”

Pripstein had also pushed for a requirement that neither party have a pension plan, which is now listed among the criteria.

But Judge Elizabeth Bozzuto, the state’s chief administrative judge for family matters, told lawmakers earlier this year that allowing cases to proceed in a simplified manner means more time and attention can be paid to cases with more significant issues in dispute. “Putting this simplified framework in place can only serve to reduce the number of parties who must go to the courthouse,” she said in her testimony. In an interview, she said: “It will be a more efficient and cost-effective process and will free up time and court resources.”

It’s unclear how much business the new law will cost family law attorneys. According to Pripstein and others, most divorcing couples whose assets are limited enough to qualify under the proposal now opt for the pro se route. Attorney Renee Bauer, whose has a family and matrimonial law practice in Hamden, said there are other states, such as California, already using a process similar to the one Connecticut seems prepared to adopt.

“Change can be good for the courts and citizens alike,” Bauer said. “The fear that it will take business away from attorneys is not a sufficient reason to obstruct the passage of this legislation. These are the cases that often do not need attorney involvement.”

Mark Dubois, president of the Connecticut Bar Association, wrote in a column that he has wondered for years why divorce should be so complicated in cases where there are no children and no alimony, and the parties agree. “Some worry about unfairness or unequal bargaining power between the participants,” Dubois wrote. “Family law is the only place I can think of where courts must rule on whether an agreement to settle a dispute is fair and equitable. In most other jurisprudence, the parties are free to make their best deal, and as long as no laws are broken, courts will approve and enforce them even if a few involve unwise choices.”

‘Long Overdue’

Robert Fried, who has offices in Hartford and Middletown and focuses on family law, called the legislation “long overdue,” saying that couples in uncontested divorces shouldn’t have to wait for months and months for the process to be finalized.

“Divorce unfortunately is an expensive process,” Fried said. “Any way we can help people get a divorce in a dignified way which is less expensive is a good idea.” Fried said they shouldn’t have to pay for an attorney and go through a longer wait.

As for whether these individuals will be getting adequate legal advice, Fried said people who don’t have children or a lot of assets may not need it. “It is a good idea to at least consult with someone, and whether someone wants guidance, that is up to them,” Fried said. “When the court is reviewing the petition, the court has the power to ask the people to come in, so there is that protection.”

Louise Zito, president of the Connecticut Council for Non-Adversarial Divorce, said that the bill’s restrictions will limit the number of people who are able to use the proposed joint petitions. The organization would like to see it extended to others, such as those who have been married longer than eight years and those with more assets, as long as there is no disagreement between the parties. Still, Zito called the bill an “important first step. … It acknowledges the need for an alternative to litigated divorce.”

According to Zito, there is plenty of opportunity for people to get sound legal advice before they submit their divorce petition. As for the potential for fraud, she noted that the divorce petition and financial affidavits will have to be signed under oath. “Fraud happens in litigated divorces as well, and the other party could reopen the divorce judgment,” Zito said.

State Rep. Ben McGorty, R-Shelton, was among the minority who voted against the proposal. According to McGorty, there is value to having divorce be a longer process. “I don’t promote divorce. I think a couple came together for a reason and should try to work it out, unless it is a violent relationship,” McGorty said. “With the right counseling, most couples can make it work. A lot of people do things in the heat of the moment. If they get in an argument, they could be divorced quickly.”