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  • Thanks to a new law, Utah’s formal policy of promoting premarital education and counseling finally has a sustainable bite to it. Tweet This
  • A substantial body of research shows that premarital education can help newlywed couples get off to a stronger start and reduce the risk of divorce in the early, high-risk years of marriage. Tweet This

In March, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law legislation that promotes participation in premarital education by discounting the cost of a marriage license by $20 for participating couples. Along with my Utah Marriage Commission colleagues and about 1,000 young people who signed a change.org petition in favor of SB 54, I celebrated this long-sought policy change. The law only provides a small incentive for couples, but one we hope will eventually yield a large public policy dividend by helping to decrease family instability. Utah joins nine other states with similar policies, including Georgia, Maryland, and Minnesota.

Since the early 1970s, Utah has had a formal policy, which is actually written in our statute (30-1-30), to encourage the use of premarital counseling. But it specifically targets teens who are getting married (age at first marriage in Utah is considerably younger than the national average) or those who remarry after a divorce (about 30% of marriages in Utah). Importantly, SB 54 widens the scope of Utah’s formal policy to include all engaged couples. But even more important, the previous policy had no real institutional mechanism to implement it. Now, with this new law, and the state Marriage Commission directing efforts to implement it, Utah’s formal policy of promoting premarital education and counseling finally has a sustainable bite to it.

So, what does SB 54 do? Couples who invest in at least six hours of premarital education or at least three hours of premarital counseling can receive a $20 discount on their marriage license. (The typical cost of a license in Utah is $40-50.) The class or counseling needs to be completed at least 14 days prior to applying for the marriage license. The education or counseling needs to address known factors associated with marital success, the importance of commitment in marriage, and effective communication and problem-solving skills (including avoiding the use of violence). Of course, most premarital education programs have much more extensive and intensive curricula than what is specified in the bill. Couples can take premarital education or counseling from either a secular or religious source.

Couples must apply online to get the marriage license discount. A computer program asks applicants questions and determines whether or not they have met the requirements to obtain a discount. One county plans to go online with the application this summer, and once one county is online, couples anywhere in the state can apply online for a marriage license. Automating the process will save counties a lot of money in clerk time and labor. And with those savings, the hope is that counties will not need to raise the cost of a marriage license to compensate for lost revenue. This feature of the bill—not raising the price of a marriage license to pay for the discount—was important to fiscal conservatives in the legislature.

The Marriage Commission’s goal is to increase participation in premarital education and counseling from about 30% (current estimate) to at least 50% of marrying couples over the next five years. To help, Utah engaged couples will have access to a free voucher to take the evidence-based online program ePREP.

Another interesting feature of SB 54 is a “sunset” clause. That is, the discount option will disappear in five years unless the legislature decides to renew it. (The governor asked for this; he likes the idea of testing new policy to make sure it is working as intended.) So, members of the Utah Marriage Commission will launch a study to determine how much the premarital education participation rate increases and whether there is evidence that it has impacted early marital outcomes.

When couples choose not to participate in premarital counseling, the bill provides that $20 from the marriage license of these couples goes to the Utah Marriage Commission to provide ongoing funding for their marriage education services. Thus, in addition to providing an incentive for couples to invest in premarital education or counseling, the bill also provides a local funding source for the ongoing work of the Marriage Commission to help strengthen all marriages in the state.

Granted, a $20 discount is only a small incentive. But we think it can still have the intended effect for two reasons. First, a primary marketing strategy for the Utah Marriage Commission will be to partner with the wedding industry in Utah to help get the word out to engaged couples to encourage participation in premarital education. In addition, we also plan to encourage wedding retailers to match the state’s $20 discount with $20 discounts off of their products and services in order to multiply the effects of the state’s discount for participating couples. Second, anecdotal data from other states that have adopted a similar marriage-license-discount policy suggests that lower-income couples are especially responsive to these discounts.

Ultimately, however, the discount is less a financial incentive and more a cultural nudge for couples to take seriously the need for marriage preparation. A substantial body of research has shown that premarital education can help newlywed couples get off to a stronger start and reduce the risk of divorce in the early, high-risk years of marriage.1 And effective marriage preparation is more important than it has ever been. Next week, I’ll explain why.

Alan J. Hawkins is Co-Chair of the Utah Marriage Commission, and the Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

1. Fawcett, E. B., Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., & Carroll, J. S. (2010). Do premarital education programs really work? A meta-analytic study. Family Relations, 59, 232-239. Also see: Bradford, A., Hawkins, A. J., & Acker, J. (2015). If we build it, they will come: Exploring policy and practice implications of public support for couple and relationship education for lower income and relationally distressed couples. Family Process, 54, 639-654; Hawkins, A. J. (2015). Does it work? Effectiveness research on relationship and marriage education. In J. Ponzetti (Ed.), Evidence-based approaches to relationship and marriage education (pp. 60-73). New York: Routledge.