The failing economy is a key reason why Staten Island is on pace for the highest number of divorce filings in more than a decade.
According to records maintained by the Richmond County Clerk’s office, 718 Islanders had submitted papers to divorce their spouses, in the first seven months of this year.
There will be 1,231 filings by year’s end if that trend continues, out-distancing the prior high of 1,172 in 2009 by 5 percent. The obtained annual filing numbers dated back to 2001. There were divorce filings annually during that period, on average.
According to some matrimonial lawyers, the increase is due to the dour economy, which adds stress to already fragile marriages. However, financial trouble at home isn’t the only reason. The state’s no-fault divorce law is also one reason, which went into effect almost a year ago.
Now it’s easier to have grounds to end the marriage. Furthermore, some spouses are eschewing settlement talks and heading straight to the county clerk’s office to file for divorce due to new temporary alimony calculations favoring so-called “poorer” spouses.
Depending on the case’s complexity, lawyers say it typically takes anywhere from a few months to two years to finalize a divorce. Some cases even take longer.
One such case is still on the docket since 2008. It involves a Charleston woman who seeks to nullify her prenuptial agreement.
According to the woman, she was coerced by her estranged husband into signing the pact, even after refusing to reveal his own net worth. In order to legitimize their son, who was born more than two years before the couple’s 2006 marriage, the woman maintained that she was anxious to marry.
Clients’ legal fees can range from a few thousand dollars in non-contested cases to tens of thousands of dollars – and sometimes even six figures – in contested matters that settle before trial or are actually heard by a judge.
The sluggish economy and the high cost to split up are keeping some unhappy couples together, according to some experts.
However, others say the continued economic hardship has had the opposite effect.
It’s even pushing spouses to pull the trigger and file for divorce. Some spouses are dealing with the legal costs by financing their cases with credit cards. Hoping the settlement will include their legal fees, others move ahead with the split.
The current uptick in divorce filings doesn’t surprise Westerleigh-based attorney William J. Frew Jr. Frew, who practices matrimonial and family law and is a past president of the Staten Island Trial Lawyer’s Association, thinks it is economic.
He said if a couple doesn’t have a solid foundation, financial woes, such as those many Islanders are experiencing in the extended economic downturn, can undermine the relationship.
He added his client caseload is increased every time they go into a down cycle in the economy.
Frew, who has been practicing since 1976, said other factors can play into a breakup, including recent phenomena, such as social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.
One spouse may come across personal or compromising information about a mate that he or she hadn’t known about. Affairs can be traced to repeated calls to an unknown number on cellphone records, in some cases.
The current divorce filings, while high, don’t approach volumes in the 1980s when couples often split in search of a good time, said Frew. When the economy recovers, Frew expects divorce numbers will go down.
On the other hand, Paul Scano, a Castleton Corners matrimonial lawyer, has experienced the opposite effect.
Scano said a lot of people come in for consultations, but don’t seem to follow-up. And he thinks it’s got to do with the economy. He said more and more unhappy spouses are waiting for their finances to turn around before filing for divorce, with the drop in home values and disposable income potentially impacting alimony and child support.
General fear of the economy is forcing people to stay together in dead marriages, Scano added.
In Scano’s opinion, the filing increase is likely due to no-fault divorce.
No-fault divorce, enacted in October, permits a spouse, who alleges his or her marriage has been irretrievably broken for six months to unilaterally file for divorce without having to prove marital fault.
Previously, regardless if both sides mutually consented to end the union, one spouse had to accuse the other of adultery, imprisonment or abandonment. The exception was if the couples had been legally separated for a year.
The last state to adopt no-fault divorce was New York.
Scano said the change in the statute has made it easier for people to have grounds for divorce. All the other issues, such as long-term alimony, child support, custody and health care must still be resolved, he added. And that process can take months or years.
William J. Leininger, a veteran matrimonial lawyer of Dongan Hills, agrees no-fault divorce is likely fueling the filing increase, but for different reasons.
The so-called poorer spouses – those who earn less than their mates – under the law, can obtain temporary alimony payments and have all or a portion of their lawyer’s fees paid by their husband or wife early on in the case.
Leininger said spouses in some cases, who earn six figures, are entitled to payments, even if they don’t need them. Temporary alimony, or maintenance, had previously been needs-based. Based on parties’ income and several other factors, those payments are computed according to a complex formula.
Leininger said the temporary alimony payments can also impact final alimony awards.
Leininger, who has been practicing for more than 30 years, said there’s a lot of pressure to bring that case in court and not try to settle it out of court.
For most divorce specialists, it has changed their modus operandi. Unless aspects of the no-fault law are changed, Leininger expects divorce filings will keep increasing.
According to an Advance analysis of state Health Department divorce and population statistics, for years, Staten Island has had the lowest divorce rate among the five boroughs.
There were 1.69 divorces in the borough per 1,000 people in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available. There were, per 1,000 people, 1.72 divorces in the Bronx by comparison, 2.03 in Queens, 2.1 in Brooklyn and 6.36 in Manhattan that year.
According to a Wall Street Journal survey, in 2009, there were 2.5 divorces per 1,000 people in New York, which tied for the fourth lowest rate, behind Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts.
Health Department statistics showed Staten Island also had the lowest divorce rates among the five boroughs in 2007 and 2008.
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