You and your fiancé are ready to make the ultimate commitment, so you take the trip together down to the County Clerk of the Court to apply for a marriage license. But when you arrive the Clerk asks, “Are you applying for a regular (non-covenant) marriage or a covenant marriage today?” You and your fiancé look at one another with bewilderment, having never heard the term “covenant marriage” before. One of you nervously responds to the Clerk, “What is the difference between them?” and the Clerk replies, “A covenant marriage has a few additional requirements, but very few couples, less than one percent in fact, apply for a covenant marriage.” You and your partner, not prepared to join the one percent or jump through the additional hoops, decide to follow the crowd and reply, “No, thank you. I think we’ll stick to a regular marriage.” But what are the consequences of that decision?
Unbeknownst to most Arizonans, there are two types of marriage licenses available to engaged couples: a non-covenant marriage license and a covenant marriage license. In the much more common non-covenant marriage, if one spouse is unhappy in the marriage, that spouse may apply for a divorce (called a “dissolution of marriage” in Arizona”) and merely cite “Irreconcilable Differences” as the reason. The court need not find fault by one of the parties (e.g., adultery) to grant the divorce. Additionally, whether the other spouse also wants a divorce is irrelevant, making it relatively easy for one party to dissolve the marriage.
However, Arizona is one of three states, joined by Louisiana and Arkansas, that permits covenant marriages as an alternative to non-covenant marriages. In a nutshell, covenant marriages seek to strengthen the marital bond between spouses and make it more difficult to obtain a divorce. One of their primary aims is keeping families together. There are two main differences between a covenant marriage and a non-covenant marriage: (1) covenant marriages require pre-marital counseling as well as counseling prior to filing for divorce; and (2) parties in a covenant marriage may only seek legal separation or divorce for limited reasons.
Prior to applying for a covenant marriage license, the engaged couple must partake in premarital counseling with a member of the clergy or a licensed marriage counselor. The parties must also sign a declaration expressing their intention to live together as a married couple as long as they both shall live. And if by chance the marriage takes a turn for the worse, a covenant marriage, unlike a non-covenant marriage, requires the parties to participate in marriage counseling before one spouse is permitted to file for divorce.
In order for a spouse to obtain a legal separation under a covenant marriage, one of the following must be present: (1) adultery; (2) felony imprisonment; (3) abandonment for at least one year; (4) physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or domestic violence; (5) living separate and apart for at least one year; or (6) habitual substance abuse.
To obtain a divorce from a covenant marriage, evidence of any of the circumstances listed above for legal separation will be sufficient. Additionally, the parties may obtain a divorce if they: (1) have lived separate and apart for two years; (2) have lived separate and apart for one year after an order for legal separation has been entered; or (3) mutually agree to terminate the marriage. However, “Irreconcilable Differences” is not an adequate reason for one party to terminate a covenant marriage. There must be something more.
Applying for a marriage license is a historic and momentous occasion for a devoted couple. Whether a covenant marriage is right for you is a decision that you and your partner must make together. Whichever option you choose, be prepared and understand the marriage options that Arizona has to offer. That way, when the County Clerk asks you which type of marriage license you are looking for, you have all the answers.