Politics & Government

Bill that would slow divorce cases in Kentucky stalls in House

Circuit Judge Tim Philpot of Fayette County Family Court.
Circuit Judge Tim Philpot of Fayette County Family Court. Tom Eblen

Kentucky lawmakers late Thursday said they’re not ready to consider a proposal to slow down divorce cases for couples who have children.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on House Bill 427 but decided to not vote on it. The committee’s chairman, Joseph Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, said there is “no consensus” among lawmakers on whether they should change existing divorce law.

As originally written, the bill would require a six-month delay before a divorce case could proceed for couples who have children. Judges would hold a separate hearing to determine if a marriage was irretrievably broken, and they also could order the couples to see a mental health professional for an assessment of the state of their relationship.

The bill was filed by state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, at the request of Fayette Family Court Judge Tim Philpot, who testified for the bill. Philpot said that for the past year, he has held hearings for all couples seeking divorce in his court to ask them if their marriage possibly could be saved. In several cases, couples reconciled, he said.

Philpot compared divorce in Kentucky to a freeway that needs “a few speed bumps” and “a sign that says ‘Children at Play.’”

“I believe I’m defending the weak … in the sense that I’m giving the spouse — typically a female, by the way, who is still trying to save her marriage — I’m giving her a voice. The party that’s still leaning into the marriage should be allowed to at least slow the process down enough to have a conversation with the judge about it, to have a conversation with a counselor about it,” Philpot told the committee.

“I’m also defending the rights of children, who never want Mommy and Daddy to get a divorce,” he added.

The Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission publicly reprimanded Philpot in January for requiring couples with children — but not those without — to participate in hearings to determine if their marriage was broken. Philpot said he responded by requiring the hearing for all couples.

In 2016, Philpot wrote a novel, “Judge Z: Irretrievably Broken,” about a judge who tries to slow down the divorces of couples with children in hopes that they will reconcile.

Speaking against the bill was Lucinda Masterton, another judge from Fayette Family Court. Masterton said she respects Philpot’s intentions, but she also fears that the bill would create a costly and time-consuming burden for couples who already have made the decision to divorce. Lexington attorneys charge an extra $500 to $1,000 per person to handle divorce cases in Philpot’s courtroom because of the additional hurdles, Masterton said.

Mandatory hearings to discuss the details of a failed relationship could make things even worse for families, Masterton told the committee.

“We are setting people up to come in and talk about the horrors of their marriage as a way to justify that they ought to be getting divorced. And then we’ll say to them, ‘Good, you’re going to get divorced, and I’ll tell you what, go collaborate about your children,’” Masterton said. “We have so poisoned their relationship by having them engage in such an inquiry.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics