The Seattle TimesTiny Lincoln County reigns as divorce capital of state

Divorce with dependent children Divorce no dependent children

In the morning, assistant County Clerk Mary Gamble brings bins and mailbags from the post office full of new filings for dissolution of marriage.

In his office one floor up, Superior Court Judge Philip Borst gets writer's cramp signing final decrees in marathons that can last six hours or more.

Welcome to the divorce capital of Washington, the only county in the state where marriages can be dissolved by mail without a court appearance.

In the early 1980s, a Spokane divorce lawyer convinced a judge that allowing people to divorce by mail would save the county time and the divorcing couple money, according to Joyce Dennison, former court clerk in Lincoln County. The judge agreed.

Paralegals and attorneys from across the state swamp County Clerk Peggy Semprimoznik's office each week with filings for clients anxious to be shed of spouses more quickly and inexpensively than in the counties where they live.

This wheat-farming county of just over 10,000 residents last year handled 4,035 domestic filings, most of them divorces.

That's more than any other county except King, home to more than 1.75 million residents, which had 5,487 filings, according to state Department of Health statistics.

By contrast, Skamania County in southwest Washington -with about as many residents as Lincoln County -had 83 domestic filings in 2002.

"Realistically, there's a lot of reasons for people getting divorced," Borst said. "If I had my rathers, I'd rather people stayed married and had a happy marriage."

But the judge said he's not saddened by the volume of marriages that are ended with a stroke of his pen because many of those seeking divorces in his court have tried marriage counseling, without success.

The ease with which a couple can legally separate or divorce here does upset a Washington-based family group and some church pastors in this county seat about 35 miles west of Spokane.

Typically, Borst's signature makes a Lincoln County divorce final in a little more than the 90-day waiting period mandated by the state. In some of the state's larger counties, where court appearances are required, court dockets are crowded with other matters and divorces can take a year or longer.

Pastor John Hammond of the Harvest Celebration Church, an Assembly of God congregation about a block away from the sandstone courthouse, is among those who don't welcome the county's status as a divorce haven.

"What kind of message are we sending," he said. "We have to consider what this means for families."

On its Web page, Families Northwest, a pro-marriage organization in Bellevue, calls the Lincoln County system "a travesty."

"The judges who set this up are unintentionally, but in all reality, undermining couples and robbing families of the opportunity to stay intact," the group says.

Semprimoznik estimates her office has handled more than 40,000 divorce filings in the 13 years she has worked there. She says she has little contact with the couples calling it quits, but thinks the county's quickie divorces are appreciated.

For his part, Borst has heard complaints from others about the county's loose divorce system, but claims he has never heard complaints from couples getting divorced.

"Its a pretty complex situation. Everybody has an opinion on it," he says. "Nine of 10 people say there are too many divorces, except they count theirs as valid."

Borst says many who file through his court can't afford an expensive divorce, and shortening the time it takes couples to dissolve their marriages eases the strain on them and the children.

"From practical experience, once they get to court and fight, they can't agree and kids suffer and they suffer," Borst says.

When both parties agree to split their assets and on child-care responsibilities, an attorney isn't necessary, the judge says.

The number of divorced couples who later file to amend their divorce decrees is about the same as those who appear in court with attorneys, he says.

Lincoln County charges a $120 filing fee and another $20 when the dissolution becomes final. The county last year earned $489,000 from domestic filings, such as divorces and annulments, Semprimoznik said.

Of that, the county netted about $283,000 for its general fund, law library and legal-facilitator program after the state took its $206,000 cut, she said.

The filings come from counties all across the state. Only about 40 a year are from Lincoln County residents, about average for its size. Semprimoznik estimates 80 percent of the filings are from Western Washington.

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