What is the role of government? I would answer in declarative terms that the government is by the people and for the people and to assist us in pursuing happiness and well-being in our lives. Laws dictate the type of society we want to have. The rules we find important to live by as a society should reflect this underlying purpose.
If, in fact, this is the role of government, then our legislators are proposing laws in this current session that will accomplish exactly the opposite. Attorneys are well situated to know the impact of legislation on the general public.
A couple of bills that have been proposed in this session of the Legislature concern me because of the negative impact the legislation will have on our homes, families and community.
The proposed laws will impact most residents' lives in a negative way, which raises the question, why are these laws being proposed?
Here are two of the bills:
* HB 80: You are responsible for all the debts of your spouse.
Utah law currently makes family medical and other necessary expenses the joint responsibility of both spouses in a marriage. Yet, HB 80 is proposing to expand that responsibility to all contracts signed by either spouse during the marriage. This isn't personal responsibility; it is spousal responsibility and it feels very 1800s.
This means that if either spouse incurs debt, both are responsible. Even if you have no idea your spouse is racking up debt, you will be responsible if state Rep. Johnny Anderson's bill becomes law.
The bill does provide an escape clause, but it requires the nonsigning spouse to prove to a judge that it would be an injustice to be held responsible for the spouse's debt.
Here is how it goes down in the real world: After a lovely wedding, Johnny and Susie start their family. The years go by and Johnny starts to get credit card applications, fills them out and send them in. Johnny soon has $20,000 or more in credit card debt. Johnny blows this money on (insert vice or business opportunity here), doesn't tell Susie and she knows nothing about this debt.
Johnny then loses his job and can't pay the debt. Susie gets sued for Johnny's debt. Under the new law, Susie would be responsible. She would have to hire an attorney, answer the complaint and explain to the judge that Johnny blew the money on whatever.
Maybe the judge will believe her, maybe the judge won't. Johnny's $20,000 in credit card debt causes marital strife. The fact that Susie got sued over it is just the final straw and their marriage dissolves, which brings me to Senate Bill 11.
* SB 11: You mess up your marriage's finances, you are going to pay.
Utah law currently administers alimony based upon need, ability to pay and the duration of the marriage. Senate Bill 11 looks to add to the reasons a court can award alimony, including engaging in extramarital sexual relationships, causing physical harm or fear of serious harm or causing financial instability.
Divorcing couples are already hostile. This bill is like throwing gasoline on the divorce fire.
So now that Johnny has messed up the family finances and Susie has filed for divorce, the new bill proposed by Sen. Lyle Hillyard will ensure a long and protracted fight in divorce court as the formerly happy couple now get to spend attorney's fees to fight over whether Johnny has to pay more in alimony because he got Susie in trouble with debt because of HB 80.
The only people happy here are going to be the collection agencies who get to sue both spouses and the divorce attorneys who will get to charge a lot more for all the legal fighting the law will encourage.
As responsible citizens and legislative officials, we should encourage measures that promote maintaining and strengthening the family as the fundamental unit of society, not building legal time bombs to make a family explosion more spectacular.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.