CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Divorce rates have started to fall in the U.S., but the fact remains that about half of marriages here still fail. And it seems like just about everybody - from lawmakers to counselors to politicians to priests - have offered their suggestions on how we can fix this problem. Now, an estate lawyer in Florida has a fresh idea.
Here's Paul Rampell's idea. His idea is that couples sign marriage leases before they walk down the aisle. These are so-called wedleases, and they give couples the option to renew the lease, or walk away from their unions after a certain amount of time has passed. Paul Rampell joins us now to tell us more. He suggested these wedleases in a piece for The Washington Post. Paul, welcome.
PAUL RAMPELL: Nice to meet you on the radio, Celeste.
HEADLEE: Nice to meet you, too. Explain this idea to us. How does a wedlease work?
RAMPELL: Well, a wedlease is a combination of the words wedlock and lease. Two people commit themselves to a marriage through a written contract for a period of years. One year, five years, 10 years - whatever term suits them. The marital lease can be renewed at the end of the term, however many times the couple likes. It could end up lasting a lifetime, if the relationship is good and worth continuing. But if the relationship is bad, the couple can go their separate ways at the end of the term they've chosen. The messiness of divorce is avoided and at the end, it can be as simple as moving out of a rental apartment.
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HEADLEE: OK, don't get that phone call. But let me ask you, how is this different from, say, a prenuptial agreement or just living with somebody before you get married?
RAMPELL: A prenuptial agreement doesn't have a set number of years. It's an open end. So if a couple signs a prenuptial agreement, marries and they don't get along, they still have to go through the divorce process. This differs from cohabitation - you know, simply living together - because it's a more formal, written commitment; and it should make a couple think more about their responsibilities to each other and their rights. I mean, is living together a sin? I don't know. But a wedlease could be an article of virtue.
HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you, Paul, you have been married for 27 years, right?
RAMPELL: Yes, I have.
HEADLEE: How would your wife have responded, do you think, if you said, hey - you know, let's try this out for just a few years and if after three years I don't like you anymore, we can walk away?
RAMPELL: Well, it's hard to know.
HEADLEE: You haven't brought the issue up with her?
RAMPELL: I can't go back in time to suggest it. But if we had entered into a wed lease, we would have picked a very long term - say, 50 years.
HEADLEE: So how does this get at the problem of high divorce? Just because it's allowing people - I mean, people get married too quickly all the time, right? I mean, we hear all the time about people, especially celebrities, rushing off to Vegas and jumping into a wedding and then giving getting divorced 72 hours later. How does this solve that problem? I mean, if they're not thinking about the wedding that much before they get married, they probably wouldn't take the preparation of signing a wedlease either, right?
RAMPELL: Well, I don't think so. I think that this is the type - here's one situation. I mean, you have an 18-year-old daughter who's in love and is determined to marry Joe Blow. Joe is 30 years old. He has married and divorced three times. He has three children. He's been bankrupt, and he's currently unemployed. Maybe you can't talk your naive, starry-eyed child out of marriage, but you might be able to talk her into a wed lease. I mean, anybody who wants to marry Charlie Sheen or Lindsey Lohan ought to have a wed lease.
HEADLEE: That's Paul Rampell at Gmail - I'm just kidding. But, let me ask about this, does this make it - I mean, you're offering it as an option, right? You could go the traditional marriage route, correct?
HEADLEE: And at this point I want to make clear this is just an idea from an estate lawyer in Florida. As smart as Paul Rampell is, it's an idea. Nobody's proposing this in legislative form, correct?
RAMPELL: Correct. It's totally theoretical. There's no data, either statistical or anecdotal. A wedlease is not intended to replace a conventional marriage if that is what two people want, nor is it intended to affect religious rules about marriage. A wedlease simply could be one more option.
HEADLEE: And of course, coming from someone who's been married for 27 years, this is not a strike at the marriage as an institution either, is it?
RAMPELL: Not at all. Not at all. I mean, some people react with righteous indignation to this concept of a wed lease, as if holy matrimony can't be discussed. But I'm addressing the legal, secular story of marriage and really trying to help the many people who face divorce.
HEADLEE: And you...
RAMPELL: It's not a change in the definition of marriage at all.
HEADLEE: I mean, a wedlease would require you to sit down with, I assume, an attorney, right, to work out the terms of your wedding lease?
RAMPELL: Well, I recommend that the couple sit down with a lawyer, but I don't think that it's sine qua non. I don't think it's absolutely necessary.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take your idea and kind of expand it, broaden it out a little bit.
HEADLEE: What if we just required people to go through counseling or go see an attorney anyway to talk about what it actually means to make that commitment of marriage? What if we just required people - the same way you used to have to get a blood test in many states - to sit down and talk over what it means to be married? Would that solve the problem also?
RAMPELL: I'm in - all in favor of that, and I think it would help solve the problem. I don't know that it would eliminate it, but I think that it would certainly help. I'm all in favor of premarital marriage counseling.
HEADLEE: And thinking it over. So what, at heart, do you think is behind the high divorce rate? What's causing it?
RAMPELL: That is a very tough question.
RAMPELL: I mean, the fact is that many people don't marry at all and have children.
RAMPELL: People marry and divorce as if getting married is the equivalent of the high school concept of going steady. It's less of a stigma to be divorced, and maybe the fact that there are high-profile divorces that are covered in the media makes it seem that divorce is a reasonable option, a reasonable out.
HEADLEE: OK. Well, it's an idea and Paul Rampell is throwing it out there. And I'm sure we will get responses from people on both sides of the argument on how to address the high divorce rate in the United States. Paul Rampell has this idea. We want to hear yours, as well. Paul Rampell, lawyer who specializes in estate planning. He joined us from his office in West Palm Beach, Florida. Paul, thank you so much.
RAMPELL: Thank you, Celeste. Nice talking to you.
HEADLEE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.