Couples not yet saying 'I do' to lower fees

By Aisha I. Jefferson

A new state law aims to save couples wanting to walk down the aisle a little money - and possibly their marriage - if they participate in premarital counseling.

Under the premarital counseling law, which became effective July 1, couples who participate in at least six hours of premarital counseling will pay $15 for their marriage license. Those who opt not to participate will pay $50.

Under the old law, marriage licenses cost $25 -$10 for the application fee and $15 for the Children's Trust Fund fee.

For couples who take premarital counseling, the new, non-mandatory law erases the application fee and only charges for the Children's Trust Fund fee. For couples who do not get premarital counseling, they will pay the increased $35 marriage license fee and the $15 for the Children's Trust Fund fee.

"Bottom line, they pay less if they get the counseling," said State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who wrote the bill for the law, adding that the Georgia Family Counsel approached him with the idea. Fleming said couples can pick up a premarital counseling certification form at Probate Court and should return it completed with the individual who conducted the counseling, when it was conducted and how long the couple participated in it when they come for their marriage license.

Despite the new law, the cost for a marriage license may be higher depending on where couples live.

Couples living in Clayton County pay $25 if they have certification of premarital counseling, and $60 without one. The Clayton County Probate Court charges $10 in additional fees for everyone seeking a marriage license for vital records recording, a certified copy of the license, mailing and processing, and for each notification of parent letter required.

Henry County couples who take premarital counseling pay $26 and those who don't, pay $61. Of the additional $11 Henry County charges, $10.80 goes to the Henry County Commission and 20 cents goes to a retirement fund for Henry County Probate Judge Del Butrill.

Catherine Saffels, a counselor with Odyssey Family Counseling in McDonough has notyet had a call about premarital counseling as a result of the law. Odyssey Family Counseling has locations in Hapeville, College Park, Decatur and in Roswell.

Saffels said Odyssey Family Counseling fees for premarital counseling are based on a slide scale where it generally costs $95 per session, and $5 per session for its lowest rate.

"When you figure in the cost of the counseling, it's not a real big break," Saffels said. "However, hopefully it will encourage people to look into premarital counseling and hopefully give them a good start on their marriage."

But Fleming said the law wasn't created just to get couples to stay together.

"The beneficial side effects of couples staying together is tremendous," Fleming said. "Anything you do to encourage the institution of marriage is going to strengthen our economy, our society, our education system -you name it."

Fleming, who has been married for 11 years and has one child, said he and his wife did participate in premarital counseling before they were married.

"The state is not mandating that you do it. There's no requirement," Fleming said. "You're not required to buy a home in this country but if you do, you'll get a tax deduction."

However, creating the law didn't go over with everyone.

State Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, was one of four state senators who voted against the bill's passage last spring. Butler said she voted against the bill because she didn't think it was fair to increase the cost of marriage licenses for those who didn't choose to engage in premarital counseling.

"When a person gets married, they take certain steeps on their own," Butler said. "These days so many churches have counseling services or members of their church who are going to get married and people go for that counseling."

Butler said she offered an amendment to the bill to leave the fee as it was but that was shot down.

"Counseling helps people period but if it keeps people together, I don't know," Butler said.

John Jauregui, vice president of community strategies with the Georgia Family Counsel, said his organization wanted the law to be instated because couples engaging in premarital counseling often acquire helpful skills and learn more about their partner.

"Our background tells us that when you invest this kind of effort prior to marriage you strengthen the couples resolve and capabilities to develop a marriage bond with both stronger commitment and a more developed skill set," Jauregui said. "It looks like it's somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of marriages in Georgia end in divorce."

Jauregui attended the SMART Marriages Conference held in Dallas, Texas in late June, and said he heard that, "of those couples who partake in premarital counseling five years into their marriage, those couples are approximately 50 percent less likely to divorce than those couples who have not had premarital counseling."

Jauregui described SMART Marriages Conference as a coalition conference where they bring marriage educators and individuals who have a passion for marriage and family education together to conduct workshops and certification conferences.

Jauregui said he thinks the law will add a level of incentive for couples to begin to understand the value in premarital education and counseling.

Fleming said he think it's going to take time to tell how effective the law will be but believes it may yield a 5 to 10 percent betterment of the state's divorce rate over time.