Just a piece of paper

Two themes have interacted in my mind lately.  First, Joseph Smith appears to have had little respect for civil marriage per se, which he viewed as a corruption of “celestial marriage,” a divine original instituted in the Garden of Eden.  His first monogamous marriages were performed without legal authority (he ultimately received authority as Justice of the Peace but did not wait for it), and his plural marriages were clearly performed in violation of existing civil statutes.

Second, our medical system exacts a substantial toll on older patients with chronic medical illness.  Spouses are often required to “spend-down,” losing retirement savings and houses in the interest of providing expensive and long-term care to their partners.  Some, threatened by exhausting poverty, will divorce their spouses in order to preserve their (generally not ostentatious) homes and often relatively meager nest eggs.  They remain quite devoted to their spouses but are legally no longer connected.

The great tenderness of these ex-spouses brings up a wide variety of difficult ethical, legal, moral, and spiritual issues.  Latter-day Saints have varied in their response to somewhat similar innovations, as in remarriage where divorce is impossible to obtain (parts of Catholic Latin America) or not generally performed (mid-century Maori culture), and, notoriously, temple sealings may not be canceled when civil divorces are granted.

Is this behavior moral?  If your spouse gave permission, would you divorce under these conditions?  What if your spouse were demented, as is often the case? Would you encourage your parents to do so?  If temple marriage is what matters, would God see civil divorce to avoid needless poverty as desertion?  Should spouses in this setting refrain from physical intimacy, or would the temple marriage cover it?  Should they cohabit?  Is the poverty that results from not divorcing a form of asceticism, a privation and trial destined to improve spirituality?  Should your thinking on decisions like these affect your thinking on definitions of marriage and commitment more generally?

You scribes of the Blogdom, what are the legal issues involved here? (I have elected to defer ranting about our medical system, as I am interested in the moral and spiritual implications of this decision and don’t want to drown them in a discussion of healthcare financing, despite my strong feelings on the subject.)


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Wow, that is one difficult set of issues.

    I’m a pragmatist, so I think I would be ok with a paper divorce in such a difficult and in extremis situation. And I personally would be ok with physical intimacy thereafter (although I haven’t polled my wife on whether she would be ok with such a situation [grin]). If the church wanted to discipline me for that, they could knock themselves out.

    All I know is that I wouldn’t judge the decisions others would make in this type of situation.

  2. “Should spouses in this setting refrain from physical intimacy, or would the temple marriage cover it?”

    the present chastity covenant clearly says that without a legal/lawful marriage, intimacy is off. A spiritual marriage, without legality, doesn’t allow for sexual relations.

    On the other hand, that’s now the way things were in the old days. How was the covenant stated during plurality? Less mention of the law, I suppose?

  3. re: 2, civil marriages were essentially ignored, and celestial marriages governed intimacy patterns (or were meant to, there were the occasional disturbers of the peace like John C. Bennett and poor William Smith).
    re: 1, i agree, hard to feel strongly that you could decide these issues for other people.

  4. I intend on telling my spouse that if care becomes expensive, that care should be rescinded from me. I’m already on the verge of carrying a card that says “do not resuscitate.” I live in fear that my future debilitation could leave my family destitute. I’d rather be dead than put my family through that. Sorry if this is a thread hijacking, but would I be judged to have commited suicide if I refused care/treatment.

  5. I believe you are compounding “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (sham divorce) with “Thou shalt not steal” (via legal, but immoral government actions).

    Unfortunately we (most western societies) have a system set up to forcibly (at the point of a government gun) transfer money from one group of people to other group(s). Just because this system is deemed legal by some (or their representatives) doesn’t make it moral (God approved). Stealing is wrong, whether it ultimately serves a good cause (health care) and, unless approved by God, violates his command.

    If a Mafia Don offered you dirty money (to treat your spouse’s health care) should you take it? If he said he’ll give it to you only if you divorce your spouse would you do it? Why is taking government (taxpayer extracted) assistance any different?

    We should, as a matter of individual, Holy Ghost prompted choice, help the widows, orphans, naked, etc. We should be generous in our giving and gracious in our receiving, but should we participate in the breakage God’s law for a few more months/years of life?

    I am no fan of the current state, nor of it’s license laws, (and I hope I’ll never have to face the situation you described), but I’d think long and hard about the judgment day before I’d divorce my spouse for a few pieces of (ill-gotten) silver.

  6. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I second what AC said (in #4).

  7. re: 5, this could also be seen as an act of civil disobedience, a protest of an unethical and unjust system, though as I said I did not want to focus this thread on healthcare financing.
    re 4/6, what you propose is not generally considered suicide, and increasing numbers of patients are pursuing this idea. the problem is that there are a wide variety of conditions that don’t kill you right away even if you refuse all medical care, most particularly dementia. Speeding death for dementia rather than just refusing medical care is generally considered suicide/homicide.

  8. Remembrancer says:

    My parents were married nearly fifty years. The last ten were a slow slide of diabetic conditons that included stroke, blindness & heart failure for my mother. Social Services suggested divorce so that my mother’s care would be totallycovered. My Father was incensed, livid. He chose to honor his Temple and civil commitment to my mom. She’d never have known. She signed papers she couldn’t see all the time. They gave up their home and lived in my noisy house with seven kids, their friends and our multiple pets. When Dh became sick with leukemia, we lost our house and savings. I believe the system is broken when it comes to catastrophic illness. We personally never considered divorce.

  9. Second, our medical system exacts a substantial toll on older patients with chronic medical illness.

    Why are you singling out older patients? In fact, the US health care system takes a toll on EVERYONE with a chronic medical illness at any age. At least older patients have Medicare. Working-aged people don’t have anything if they can’t keep a job. And medical billls are the single most common reason for USAmericans to go bankrupt.

    Spouses are often required to “spend-down,” losing retirement savings and houses in the interest of providing expensive and long-term care to their partners.

    But shouldn’t they be spending their own resources before turning to the government for help? I thought everything the church teaches about self-sufficiency was that we do what we can first.

    Make up your mind about what you want. We can’t turn up our noses at “socialized medicine” and yet whine when grandma needs long-term care.

    I personally am in favor of universal health coverage, not necessarily government run. Perhaps our friends from Canada, Australia, or any other industrialized nation can comment on how it works for them.

    (BTW, my state exempts an owner-occupied home from qualification for Medicaid, so nobody loses a home. If yours does not, that’s a matter for lobbying your legislature.)

  10. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Alas, if civil marriage is but a piece of paper, why should we care if same-sex partners get their hands on one of them. Oops, I fear I may have spun this discussion in a whole different direction – though I suspect Sam may have anticipated this. Returning to the health care arena, I always find it fascinating that government officials tacitly suggest divorce in order to secure assets and qualify for assistance, which is not uncommon. I’m all for such a move in order to preserve whatever meager treasure I have accumulated, but fear it would provide my wife just the window she needs to flee. A difficult decision indeed, which can only be evaluated individually. However, those who face these decisions should not be viewed as disingenuous folks trying to game the system for personal gain, but as the heroes and heroines they are for being forcibly paraded through a bureaucratic mire during what is always a most difficult time. While having to sell your beloved home in Maine is but a small price to pay for one’s health, it still shouldn’t be necessary.

  11. cchrissyy says:

    “civil marriages were essentially ignored, and celestial marriages governed intimacy patterns”

    sure, but did temple covenants in that era still say something to the effect of “only your legal spouse”? I’d be surprised. anybody know?

  12. not sure i understand the question, then. the original celestial marriages made no reference to legal spouses except implicitly as a foil to marriages solemnized by “the authority of the priesthood.” After JSJ became a justice, i don’t think he changed the phrasing much, but i’ll look around and see if i can find one of those later monogamous ceremonies. the plural ones continued to exist independent of any reference to legal spouses.

  13. I agree with Daylan. If we aren’t accumulating retirmenet money to pay for our care, why exactly are we saving?

    I have a great dishonest idea for SAHMs. If I divorce my husband, I can qualify for certain benefits. He can just live with me, and it will make it easier for me to be a SAHM. And isn’t that what is important?
    Hey, that’s exactly what my husband’s nephew is doing! He isn’t marrying his pregnant live-in girlfriend until after the baby is born. Because she and her two kids would lose benefits if they married so they are waiting until after the baby is born so the baby’s birth will be covered.
    Why is it that I was disappointed to hear this about them? Marriage means less and less everyday. This nephew’s older brother had a child out of wedlock in high school (they first said they would marry when she graduated….which didn’t happen). So its not a big deal anymore. Big brother did it.

  14. MikeInWeHo says:

    Marriage is becoming increasingly distorted and diminished because we link so many government benefits to it, in one direction or the other. Federal income taxes? Non-married couples get a better deal (or has that been fixed now?). Employer-provide health insurance for your spouse? Only to legally married couples (in most cases). Long-term elder care? Consider divorce if you want to pass anything on to your kids.

    So depending on your situation, there may be a powerful financial incentive to either seek marriage or avoid it. Is it really so immoral for JKS’ husband’s nephew to defer marriage until after the birth of the child if the alternative is lack of access to good medical care for the pregnant mother and baby? What kind of society forces people to make these sorts of decisions anyway?

    I agree that responsible behavior and good planning can prevent many of these dilemmas. My brother and I obtained long-term care insurance for our parents years ago, even though it was a difficult conversation to have with them at the time. But is it realistic to expect most people to make those kind of plans, even clean-living, upstanding Mormons?

  15. An interesting idea. But is it fair to compare the status of marriage on the American frontier in the nineteenth century with today?

    I also have to say that from an international perspective, the American medical service system seems barbaric. The idea that you could lose your house because you are sick, or that you could die because you are poor strikes me as bizarre given the infrastructure and wealth of the country.

  16. The insurance industry has several solutions to these financial issues if a person has any resources. One example is a Tax Deferred Annuity that doubles as Long Term Care Insurance. If the Owner/Annuitant is confined to a nursing home the value of the annuity is increased by 3X to provide a daily benefit for the owner. The cost for providing this benefit is dependent on the age of the owner at issue of the policy. Generally 1% to 2% annually.

    So Mom and Dad can convert some of their savings into one of these types of accounts, take a little less return on the savings and have the needed coverage.

    Some of the states exempt annuities from any legal attachment. (Texas, Florida, Arizona and others) The moral issues involved unfortunately are a dilemma for some. I happen to agree with Dayln #5.

    “I am no fan of the current state, nor of it’s license laws, (and I hope I’ll never have to face the situation you described), but I’d think long and hard about the judgment day before I’d divorce my spouse for a few pieces of (ill-gotten) silver.”

    Better to be prepared and use your resources wisely.

  17. Sam MB,
    Was this post spurred by a reading of Jane Eyre?

  18. I’m not the slightest bit interested in passing anything on to my kids, nor am I interested in any kind of monetary inheritance from my parents. I had hoped they would live long and well and get to spend every dime on fun stuff.

    I’m not optimistic about that, because my Mom had a stroke earlier this year. I just hope my dad doesn’t lose everything taking care of HER, because he’s got really good genes (his mother is in excellent health physically, and she’s 97). Fortunately, like Naismith (hey Naismith!) they live in a state where a spouse doesn’t have to sell the house to qualify for Medicaid.

  19. jat
    i’m going to confess with some embarrassment that i’ve never read jane eyre.

  20. Federal income taxes? Non-married couples get a better deal (or has that been fixed now?).

    I have no other profound thoughts to share, but I do have a comment on this idea. There has historically been a “marriage penalty” in the federal tax code, which implies the existence of a “singles bonus,” i.e., you pay less tax if you’re single than if you’re married. What the media doesn’t tell you is that there is also a “marriage bonus”, which implies the existence of a “singles penalty.”

    It all depends on your tax bracket and whether the spouses have roughly equal income, or whether one spouse earns 80% of the total income. For example, wife works while husband is a full-time student school, so wife earns 80% of the income. This couple gets a marriage bonus. If husband and wife have roughly equal salaries, then there is a marriage penalty. The marriage penalty has only become a big deal in the past few decades as it has become feasible for both spouses to earn comparable wages. In the scenario where the husband works and wife stays home, the marriage bonus would kick in.

    And the reason this discrepancy exists at all is because of California’s community property laws. But I won’t bore you with the story of the origin of the marriage bonus and penalty. Suffice it to say that it was not a policy decision, merely an accident of state law intersecting with federal law.

    And yeah, they’re fixing it by offering some kind of credit that I never studied very much. I don’t know if doing away with the marriage penalty will also do away with the marriage bonus or not.

    I used to be a tax lawyer. Good times.

  21. In May, the LA Times ran a story relevant to this question. Briefly, it describes a village in China where everyone divorced to take advantage of a government allocation that would benefit two single people somewhat more than a married couple. The couples divorced, considering it a formality that wouldn’t really affect their relationships, but the consequence was wholesale social ruin. Formalities do effect how we deal with one another.

    It is kind of funny how the existence of aid for impoverished people causes well-enough off people to feel that they should get the money too without the unpleasantness of actually becoming poor. It is like complaining that some orphans are getting free meals, but I have to buy my children’s food just because they have living parents to provide for them.

  22. I find this very discussion extremely pertinant to me, and really would like more feedback on it.

    Here is my situation:
    My first wife and mother of my children, developed schizophrenia and suffered chronic psychosis, beginning in her mid 20s. We divorced when it became apparent that it was too dangerous for me and the kids to remain with her (I was faced with having to choose between caring for her and having the kids being in jeoperdy or completely seperating). We were already bankrupt with over $30k in medical debt due to all the medical expenses of her care, so by divorcing her she was able to still get care.

    Now, 5 years after the divorce, I am still sealed to my first wife, and I have been civilly married to my second wife.

    The perplexing issue is this…
    My first wife has had a miraculous recovery on a last ditch medication and is wanting for us to get back together. While my second wife is estranged, but also wanting to reconcile and get back together.

    Spiritually I am married to my first wife. Secularly I am married to my second wife.
    Emotionally, I am terribly torn.

    If I stay with my second wife (via civil marriage or even sealing) it is like keeping my first wife as a rain-check relationship, due to our sealing, and the belief that we will be together in the eternities. In a way, it is like emotionally cheating on my 2nd wife, since she is very aware of the implications.

    Anyone have any insights that can help add some clarity?

  23. Steve Evans says:

    OK….. my two bits:

    David, if you are emotionally torn, it is a tearing of your own construction, not because of anything inherent to your situation. You are no longer married to your first wife. You may have not dissolved the temple sealings, but your earthly relationship with her is, and must remain, over. Your duty is to the woman to whom you are legally and lawfully married, your 2nd wife. You do her a grand disservice to hold onto notions of being with your first wife through the eternities.

    Basically you are entertaining thoughts of a bizarre kind of adultery under the guise of a leftover temple sealing. With your current line of thinking, you are being disloyal to your current wife and dishonest with yourself and your 1st wife as to the nature of that prior relationship. So long as you are married — here on earth– to a woman, you duty is to her first and foremost.