A Quick Online Divorce for $60? Not So Fast, Denmark Says
COPENHAGEN — As one of the most wired countries in the world, Denmark offers hospital records, death certificates, tax returns and other important documents with little more than a couple of clicks.
Even a divorce can be obtained in less than a week with only a short online form and a $60 fee. But Denmark has long had one of the highest divorce rates in Europe, and the government has decided that breaking up should be a little a harder to do.
Under new rules set to go into effect next year, couples who have children and who decide to dissolve their marriage will be required to observe a three-month “reflection period” before the divorce takes effect, during which they will be offered free counseling. The idea is to provide protection for children, who will also receive counseling during the waiting period. (The quick divorce is still available for childless couples and in cases of abuse.)
The current rules give divorcing parents only a few days to decide on arrangements for their children, increasing the potential for conflict, said Mai Mercado, the minister for children and social affairs, who negotiated the changes with lawmakers.
“We want to give them space to land on their feet and not make decisions right away,” Ms. Mercado said. “We’d like to give parents an opportunity to reflect.”
The changes are a rare step back in a country that has moved aggressively to move official interactions online. More than 90 percent of Danes between 16 and 89 can use a government-issued digital ID to gain access to personal records or to communicate with the authorities. The system is often efficient: 1.3 million people logged on to see their annual tax return within 24 hours of release this month.
But the push to digitalize Denmark may have gone too far by offering a quick fix for marriage problems.
“Human lives don’t necessarily fit into a public-sector I.T. system,” said Morten Hjelholt, an associate professor at IT University of Copenhagen who has studied how digitalization has affected the Danish society. “Increased digitalization with efficient communication between the state and its citizens doesn’t always match different life situations.”
Mr. Hjelholt sees two major exceptions: “It doesn’t work in divorce and death.”
Digital death certificates, required in Denmark since 2007, lead to the immediate cancellation of passports, driver’s licenses and digital IDs to prevent fraud.
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Kirsten Margrethe Kristensen, 69, was mistakenly declared dead by a doctor this month. “Making mistakes is human,” she told DR, the national broadcaster. “It’s more that one, just by a click, is out of the system and gone.”
The quick divorce presents a similar problem, some officials said — particularly when children are involved.
“Time for reflection is important,” Karin Nodgaard, the spokeswoman on social issues for the populist right-wing Danish People’s Party, which is not a part of the governing coalition, told the news agency Ritzau. “It never hurts to be thoughtful — for neither parents nor children.”
Not everyone wants to instill a waiting period.
“It’s patronizing to tell people, ‘We don’t believe you’ve thought this through. You must think about it for another three months,’ ” said Laura Lindahl, the social affairs spokeswoman for the Liberal Alliance, a junior partner in the governing coalition. “Making the road more tortuous and difficult doesn’t achieve anything positive.”
Soren Sander, a psychologist who has studied the effects of divorce, said that children and adults alike suffer psychologically and physically from a breakup. His research, which has helped guide the mandatory counseling materials, measures anxiety, depression, visits to doctors and other indicators of distress.
“There are indications that with intervention their well-being increases,” Mr. Sander said.
That’s not to say that divorces in Denmark are leaving the internet behind: While some counseling during the three-month reflection period takes place face to face, a mandatory course on the typical challenges of a divorce is available online and through an app.
“We don’t see the app as a replacement for consultations, but as a supplement,” Mr. Sander said. “Eighty percent of divorces have an acceptable level of conflict. The app is for them.”