The Gospel Benefits of Divorce (or, Why I Wish Divorce was Easier in Latin America)

The requirement of legal marriage is often a big hurdle for investigators in Latin American countries. The reality is that a large percent of the populace lives in common-law marriage. And it is often difficult, and expensive, to change their status. I can’t count the number of times I taught a family on my mission, only to have their unmarried state end up as a fatal hurdle to their joining the church.

One thing that I picked up from teaching families in was a healthy appreciation for the gospel benefits of readily available divorce.

I can’t vouch for the legal details, but what I was told as a missionary is this: Divorce in Guatemala is essentially impossible. It’s very seldom done, it’s quite expensive and takes a long time and requires approval from both parties and all sorts of officials and involves miles of red tape. As a result, the country’s divorce rate is well below half of one percent.

And therein lies the problem.

You meet a new family, Jose and Maria, and they’re great. They eagerly read the Book of Mormon; they’ve got great kids; they’re praying and coming to church. You’re excited.

And then you hit the inevitably-fatal obstacle. When Maria was eighteen, she had a husband named Marcos. For whatever reason — alcohol, abuse, infidelity, or just general breakdown — they separated soon thereafter. And then she met Jose, and they’ve been together for the twenty or thirty years since.

However, Maria didn’t just enter common-law marriage. For whatever reason — family pressure, financial reasons, church pressure, it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time, or whatever — she actually went down and got a marriage certificate.

Now, thirty years later, she has no idea where Marcos is. He may not even be in the country anymore. Necessary records may be lost or unavailable. Divorce is not a possibility.

And since she’s technically married, she cannot legally marry her long-term common-law husband. Thus, she is essentially in permanent violation of the law of chastity, which requires that sexual relations be limited to a spouse with whom she is legally married. Neither she nor Jose will pass a baptismal interview. And that perfect family — Jose and Maria and their great kids who run up to you when you come to the door, and who ask you to tell them stories about baseball in America — that family will never be able to be baptized into the church.

(Let me preemptively address one quibble that always comes up: Yes, technically you can tell them that they can get baptized — as long as one of them moves out of the home, permanently, and neither of them ever has sex again. Their days as a family are done, and so are any plans for future kids.

You try telling a family that sometime, smarty pants.

And no, I’m not convinced that that’s the even the best route. What kind of effect does that have on the kids? “Honey, Daddy’s not going to live here anymore.” Yeah, that’s going to have a really positive effect.)

And you run into variations on this theme all over the country. Every family is a minefield.

It’s enough to instill a healthy appreciation for the gospel benefits of divorce.

30 comments for “The Gospel Benefits of Divorce (or, Why I Wish Divorce was Easier in Latin America)

  1. Justin H
    June 1, 2005 at 12:49 am


    she has no idea where Marcos is. He may not even be in the country anymore.

    Amen. I was a Span-Am in Los Angeles. I probably taught Marcos and his “new” (read: U.S.) family, and they couldn’t be baptized either. You think getting a Central American divorce is hard in Central America–try doing it from gringolandia.

    Incidentally, not that it’s any better than “alcohol, abuse, infidelity, or just general breakdown,” you should add “moved to the US with/without the intention of supporting the family back home and never went back” to your list. I taught many couples who were both married (to other people) years earlier in their respective countries but who had lived in the US together for years.

  2. Alan Lambson
    June 1, 2005 at 12:56 am

    I faced a similar situation in Argentina 30 years ago. Brother Blanco (name disguised) was a Spanish immigrant who had been previously married, and divorced, in France. When he arrived on the shores of Argentina, he was asked what his marital status was. “Divorced”, he said. “Married” was what was stamped on his official documents, as there was no legal divorce in Argentina at the time.

    When we met him, he had been living with his partner for 20 years and had 8 children. Legal marriage was impossible: he was already “married”. Divorce was also impossible. It did not exist in Argentina, and a foreign divorce would have required at least the existence of a legal spouse: but he had divorced her in France many years before and had lost track of her.

    He and his family were eventually baptized, with authorization by the First Presidency, and became strong, contributing members.

  3. June 1, 2005 at 1:06 am

    Amen again. And not just divorce, but marriage in the first place, a problem that is all the more common.

    A nice, strong family. Pictures of their large Catholic wedding all over the house. At the last minute you discover they’re not legally married. Marriage requires birth certificates and they no longer have them. Getting them requires finding the appropriate office in their place of birth on the other side of the country. No baptism, at least not for a very long time.

    As the church works on reforming laws that other countries hold regarding the entrance of missionaries, maybe they should also work on reforming marriage and divorce laws.

  4. Geoff B
    June 1, 2005 at 4:35 am

    For what it’s worth, many Latin American countries are reforming such laws. Brazil, for example, created laws making it easier to recognize common-law marriage in 2003. Chile finally legalized some forms of divorce in 2004.

  5. capt jack
    June 1, 2005 at 7:45 am

    In the 1980s, people in common-law marriages were baptized all the time with no need for first presidency approval.

    Interestingly enough, as part of the divorce law passed in Chile marriages performed by ministers of religions legally recognized in Chile are considered valid if the couple presents their certificate at the Civil Registry within 8 days of the ceremony. No more need to get married at the Registro Civil and then go to the temple.

    For some reason, the LDS Church has yet to say whether they intend to participate or whether they will encourage couples to keep doing things the way they have been.

  6. June 1, 2005 at 7:55 am

    It is stories like these which should, to my mind, re-inforce the idea that marriage is not a “natural” but a social institution, and that what is natural is the end or telos for which marriage is designed–children, family, security, and so on. I tend to believe that in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Western world, no-fault divorce has had tremendous negative consequences, on society as a whole and on relations between the sexes; movements towards “covenant marriage,” requirements for mandatory marriage counselling, or indeed anything to strengthen the sense of obligation which marriage is supposed to entail, is worth experimenting with in my book. But then, much of Western Europe and America had long already been shaped by a rejection of the Catholic definition of marriage, and an acceptance of the Protestant one (Brigham Young himself allowed that divorce is sometimes a regretable necessity). In Latin America, you have the opposite problem. American conservatives who (rightly) complain about our divorce culture probably shouldn’t export their arguments south of the border, where I think many marriage laws similarly miss the mark, only from the opposite direction.

  7. June 1, 2005 at 8:53 am

    Wow, this hit the nail on the head. When I got to Guatemala my trainer was working with two different couples to get their divorce. He said it would basically be impossible, but that the couples were willing to work it out. Both couples were eventually able to get their divorces and I was able to baptize both couples before I left the area. The husband of one of the couples is a counselor in a bishopric and his wife is in the young womens in the stake. The other couple is still active as well, last time I could check. When I got to my last area we were working with a family who needed to get a divorce and they got it as well. My last saturday in the mission we married/baptized that family and earlier in the day we went to the temple to see the first family (from my first area) get sealed in the temple. Easily the best day in the mission. I had more luck with divorces than any missionary I’ve ever known in Guatemala. I didn’t find any of those families though, I just got to see the fruits of other’s (and my) labor.

  8. June 1, 2005 at 9:22 am

    Kaimi: It isn’t that big of a problem. In the Dominican Republic, we had working arrangements with several judges, who for the appropriate ‘fee’, would do the divorce. I “divorced” and “married” several families like this prior to their baptisms.

  9. anon
    June 1, 2005 at 10:05 am

    President Kimball’s biography mentions the impediment some South American common-law couples faced in joining the church due to no legal means of obtaining a divorce in their countries. Kimball developed a policy that allowed such couples to join the church if they were in a committed, monogamous relationship and any children from any prior marriage were being supported. Based on comments here it sounds like that policy no longer exists–or perhaps it applies only in those countries where divorce is not legal in any form?

  10. Soyde River
    June 1, 2005 at 10:08 am

    I believe there is such a policy in countries with no divorce. The most prominant of those, in church terms, is the Philippines.

  11. capt jack
    June 1, 2005 at 10:15 am

    Kimball was referring to countries with no legal divorce–ie Argentina prior to 1987 and Chile prior to Sept 2004. Even in those countries there were legal subterfuges used to escape unhappy marriages, but these were generally out of reach of the poor.

  12. Mark B.
    June 1, 2005 at 10:18 am

    It’s interesting that a few “bought” judges in the Dominican Republic prove that “it isn’t that big of [sic] a problem.”

    I’ve never been to Latin America, but face this problem regularly when missionaries in New York have “families” ready to be baptized but they’re prevented by the pre-existing marriages of one or both of the spouses.

    Divorces can be obtained in New York, so long as the residency requirements are met and the other spouse can be located. Finding the missing spouse, who perhaps was last seen 15 years ago in some barrio in Mexico City, can be expensive and time consuming.

    Besides, I don’t know that I want to start buying judges down at the Supreme Court, Kings County–their fees are too high, and the costs of getting caught are substantial (see, for example, the Garson brothers).

  13. Mark B.
    June 1, 2005 at 10:19 am

    Now, where are the Danites when we need them?

  14. Nate Oman
    June 1, 2005 at 11:04 am

    Kaimi: Most American states have statutes whereby a person who disappears and is not heard from for a certain number of years is presumed dead. I wonder if there are similar provisions in Guatemalan law that would allow Maria to become a legal widow?

    Interestingly, in Korea we ran into this problem not as a result of divorce laws but as a result of the social pressure to have elaborate marriages. I taught a number of familes who insisted that they couldn’t get married because they couldn’t afford to do so. Frankly, I found their situation to be less sympathetic than Maria’s, but it was a real problem nevertheless.

    Divorce, it seems to me, is simply another example of the problem of legal informality in much of the developing world. Much of the world has legal regimes that are simply too complicated and unwieldy to be used by the poor (ie most of the population). The result is that they simply check out of the legal sector and suffer the costs of legal informality. The problem pervades not only family relationships but also commercial relationships — how large can a business becomes if it is deprived of access to things like corporate form, dispersed ownership, secured credit, long term contracts with strangers, etc. Yet these are all things that require legal formality, something that is beyond the reach of much (most) of the world’s population.

  15. June 1, 2005 at 11:46 am

    Mark B.:

    “add 1 part sarcasm to comment along with 2 parts of history”


  16. Janey
    June 1, 2005 at 2:46 pm

    I was on a mission in Kiev, shortly after the USSR fell apart. Divorce was readily available. However, housing was scarcer than hen’s teeth. The result was that a couple would get divorced, and continue to live together. We had three families we taught that consisted of the divorced mother and her kids. But they couldn’t be baptized because the divorced father was still living there, years after the divorce had been finalized. He would be on a waiting list for housing that was frequently 15 years long, if you didn’t know the right people.

    One divorced family lived in a one-room apartment. The kids slept in bunk beds. The divorced parents continued to share a bed in the same room. The mother told us she and her ex hadn’t spoken to each other since their divorce eight years earlier.

    The ex couldn’t just go move in with a buddy or with his parents, because the government dictates where you live. It would be breaking a law to move to a different apartment without govt permission.

  17. JKS
    June 1, 2005 at 3:12 pm

    Who’s that one quarterback? Kurt Warner I think? Anyway, he and his girlfriend joined a protestant church. He had been living with her and raising her kids as his own. But they wanted to wait a year and get married and be “worthy” to get married. He continued to live at home (because of the kids) but they refrained from sex for a year before they got married. Pretty impressive.

  18. Sandra
    June 1, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    When I served my mission in Chile, we could baptize these people (still legally married to others but living in common-law arrangements) with only a mission president interview. That was in the 90’s.

  19. John H
    June 1, 2005 at 3:51 pm

    Interesting information. I served in New York and had no idea this could be a problem in other countries.

    I can’t imagine the Church wouldn’t be sympathetic and make exceptions (as in Eric’s example), but the sheer number of people probably couldn’t all be approved by the First Presidency.

  20. June 1, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    In the Philippines Islands where I served my mission, there also isn’t divorce in the Catholic run theocracy there. They do have anullments, which take multiple years and are only really available to the rich. I’m not saying it’s right, and I think Elder Oaks went over there to correct some of these things right after I came home, but we were told as missionaries it was ok to baptize them, but that they could never go to the temple and we had to call the Mission President on it. We had a lot of situations where people had been living togethor for 20 or more years, and were’nt married and couldn’t be because they were married to someone they’d only spent 3-6 months with and then had left them. While I was there I did a lot of research on Anullments and again, I believe Elder Oaks was looking into this while he was there. I’d love to know if anyone had a status update on this…I’ve heard rumors that the situation was similar in Chile…

  21. June 1, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    I should also mention, on my mission, you got pretty used to asking pretty upfront questions in the first discussion about their marital status…

  22. Sandra
    June 1, 2005 at 4:09 pm

    matt, yes, the situation was very similar in Chile when I was there. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Elder Holland went to Chile while Elder Oaks went to the Philippines. The missions in both countries were in much need of retooling and order.

  23. APJ
    June 1, 2005 at 6:24 pm

    of course, an alternative to making divorces easier is for the church to recognize that a man and woman are in a multi-year, committed and loyal relationship (many times with kids), and are for all intents and purposes, satisfying the underlying principles of the law of chastity. maybe the church could let couples in such a situation become members then….i don’t think it would have a negative effect on the church’s espousal of family values…

  24. June 2, 2005 at 8:21 am

    I served in New York when they had the minimum fee schedules and an uncontested divorce cost about $5,000 in 2005 dollars. The issue about the poor opting out of the legal system …

    BTW, New York, and other states, appears to allow service by publication — but then you have to pay for an ad litem.

  25. June 2, 2005 at 4:19 pm

    Amen. Amen again. ARJ (Comment #23)

    What ever happened to the idea that the letter of the law kills but the spirit of the law gives life? Heaven forbid that we might actually have to look at a situation, gather necessary information, think about it, pray for guidance and then MAKE AN INTELLIGENT DECISION about whether a couple are married or not in the eyes of God. Over reliance on rules leads to exceptions and more rules and more exceptions until you tie yourself into a pretzel that even a judge with the wisdom of Solomon (or Elder Oaks) can not untangle.

    Other extraneous ideas that came to my mind from the above comments:

    Brigham Young had a pretty tolerant attitude towards divorce because several of his wives divorced him. I read somewhere it was 11 of the almost 30. So his own personal divorce rate of around 30% was about the same as ours today. And who can forget that deliciously awful little novel written by his last wife, a young snotty actress, entitled the Twenty Seventh Wife about the horrible family life in the Beehive house. Undoubtedly exaggerated and distorted, but realize that it was a best seller of its day and Brigham had to contend with the fact that many people read it and believed it. And wonder about his own personal judgement in marrying her in the first place. Can you imagine someone like Paris Hilton writing today this sort of yellow journalistic trash about being married to President Hinckley?

    Almost every one of the Apostles and over 90% of the Bishops in the entire church for over 40 years were involved in illegal marriages. I refer to Pioneer plural marriages. Many of them were put in prison for it and at one point the Quorum of the Twelve found it more convenient to hold their meetings and conduct there business from within the walls of the prison. The prison was at what it now Sugar House Park for those who know where that is. Funny, the church hasn’t put up any little monuments to honor them. At the time the church leaders considered their plural marriages legal and right before God. But the government thought they were illegal and the courts agreed with them. Numerous appeals and new stricter laws eventually lead to a Supreme Court case which ruled against the church leaders. I guess we are not suppose to discuss post-manifesto polygamy at the higher levels, but I personally know it happened. In 1914, some 24 years after the Manifesto two apostles were dismissed from the Quorum for complex and controversial reasons related to plural marriage.Francis Lyman was the last Apostle to get ex-ed for plural marriage in about 1946 if I recall correctly. For a church with this legacy, I find it hard to understand why we make such a big deal over these various current little difficulties and circumstances around the world.

    It is my understanding that here in Georgia until a few years ago, that all you had to do to contract a common law marriage was shack up with a woman. Checking into a motel together under one name was considered legal proof of a common law marriage. Paying the bills together was another way to establisjh a common law marriage. And that was good enough. You might find yourself liable for alimony if she had the sense to take you to Court for it, although I think it was rarely done. Under those circumstances it might prove difficult to violate the Law of Chastity more than once or twice with the same woman because you would be considered legally married when you started to live together. You could be married to a different woman every night of the week. It was impossible by the definition of marriage to be living together in sin. This has been changed and the institute of marriage has been strengthened and the definition of unchastity tremendously broadened by our Protestant friends. I believe that the LDS church did not recognize these common law marriages as valid. It was easy enough to tie or untie them so we did not face the problems with new members described above. One of my best friends in the ward now had to get married the day of her baptism to the man she had been with for many years and it was not a big deal, lucky for her.

    Stephen (directly above)- $5000 bucks? Wow!
    One of my cheap skate Utah relatives got a quickie divorce on the Internet for twenty bucks. It gave him no protection or help when the conflicts over kids, money, etc. eventually dragged them into court. It seems like it might be worth the money to do it right if a divorce is necessary. But 5 grand seems pretty stiff.

  26. June 2, 2005 at 4:23 pm


    Ironically, it was frustration with similar challenges that first led Joseph Smith, in Kirtland around 1835, to first exercise an LDS priesthood prerogative over marriage, essentially granting divorces for some faithful LDS who were technically married but were living apart from non-LDS spouses with no chance of reconciliation, then performing new marriages. The absence (or practical unavailability) of legal divorce in such a context was a serious problem at the time. Times have changed, of course.

  27. Mark B.
    June 2, 2005 at 5:03 pm


    I don’t know where you got your information about minimum fee schedules and $5,000 for divorces.

    It just isn’t that way. Uncontested divorces (at least in the yellow pages) start at about $500 and the court fees are just over $300. Service of process will cost another $75.

    You can serve by publication if the spouse cannot be found, but first you must show the court what you’ve done to try to find the spouse, and then pay for publication. That all becomes expensive.

  28. June 3, 2005 at 9:57 am

    I did a mission in Honduras in the ’80’s and it was a big problem then. I don’t know how or if things have changed since then.

    I thought that, at the time, the best way to deal with it would have been to have two companionships, one in the north and one in the south (other missions could set it up how it worked best), take them off prostelyting, and have their full-time job be getting the divorces done as they get referrals from the other missionaries.


  29. June 3, 2005 at 4:19 pm

    Mark B … I referred to the days of the minimum fee schedules — local bar associations used to promulgate minimum fees for various types of work back in the days before the Justice Department construed those as price fixing and got them all banned. In 2005 dollars (adjusted for inflation, etc.) the minimum fee worked out to what would now be about $5k.

    Obviously things have changed. I was just referring to the fact that the problem at one time afflicted people in the states — that is, being too poor to have effective access to basic legal services.

    Uncontested divorces down here start at closer to $125.00 plus costs of court.

    I was talking about the way it was, not the way it is. I don’t know of any United States jurisdiction that enforces minimum fee schedules these days ….

  30. Dudley Spears
    June 6, 2005 at 8:35 am

    Interesting situation. What exactly is the official Mormon position on the right to divorce and remarry?

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