Cecil's Divorce Tax

December 30, 1992

Divorce is among the most painful, stressful experiences in life -- almost as awful as marriage itself, many bitter divorcees would quickly add.

Cecil County would like to make it even more painful -- divorce, that is. The county wants to impose a divorce fee of $20, added to current court and filing fees of about $100.

It's not that county officials really expect the additional levy to stem the swelling tide of dissolved wedlock. Rather, it's seen as a relatively painless way to take in more.

Nothing wrong with that type of user fee -- courts and other agencies regularly hike their fees without much ado to plug the holes in the budget dike. Twenty bucks won't be noticed among the heavy costs involved in a typical divorce.

Cecil officials propose to earmark these funds for a specific purpose: help for battered spouses and their children. Half of the county marriage license fee already goes toward that purpose.

State Sen. Walter M. Baker, head of the county's legislative delegation, says he believes the expansion of spouse-abuse programs could prevent some divorces. And he says that the novel divorce tax -- the first in Maryland, at least -- would make sense by making those who end a marriage pay for such programs now aided by those getting married.

There is certainly a growing need for human services programs, badly hurt by state and federal funding cuts. Cecil's social services director, John Koch, told legislators (who must get General Assembly approval as a charter government county) that the extra fee was needed to make up for state aid cutbacks in "women's programs."

That perspective raises some problems with the proposal: It's aimed at help for only one party in a troubled marriage. Worthy programs may need support, but not from an earmarked fee that equates failed marriages with battered women and children. That's egregious sexism, the kind of broad-brush gender defamation used by some private women's shelters and certain divorce lawyers to promote their specific interest.

It also sends a distorted message of blame to people that are as legally entitled to end conjugal unions as they are to enter into them. Cecil County should steer clear of that kind of insinuation. The revenue could go for general human services needs, or specifically for children's services, since they are the innocent victims of the parents' "civil wars." That would deserve prompt General Assembly support for the measure.

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