Nov. 30 -- There's an old saying: Divorce lawyers are like liquor stores. They're busiest in both the really good times, and in the really bad.
These, of course, would be the bad times.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers released the results of a poll last week in which 37 percent of the group's 1,600 members said they saw a decrease in divorce cases during national economic downturns. Forty-four percent said they saw no change, and 19 percent said they saw an increase.
"One thing we always see in a bad economy is fear," explains the academy's president, Gary Nickelson, a longtime matrimonial lawyer in Fort Worth, Texas. "People may want out of their marriages -- but they want to be OK, too."
Lockport attorney Angela Stamm-Philipps said although any national slowdown in divorce rates hasn't seemed to hit the local area, the possibility is there.
"We're starting to see the layoffs now, and I know that's going to start to trickle down," she said, adding that money is a "huge" factor adding stress to marriage.
"Especially if you're already in a stressful position, it just escalates it 100 percent," she said. "It's a huge factor, and we're probably going to see more and more of it as time goes."
With families living on two incomes, a layoff within the family can put serious stress on a marriage, she said. "Money is THE great source of stress in relationships," says Bonnie Rabin, one of five partners in a Manhattan matrimonial firm. "You think it might be sex, or the kids. But no, it really comes down to money." And so it stands to reason that in such a dire time -- when "virtually every day, I hear from a client who's lost their job," Rabin says -- troubled relationships become more troubled. And once seemingly solid unions begin to fray. But that doesn't mean everyone's rushing to divorce court. It just means that every step of the process is more fraught, more complicated, more difficult. Breaking up in this economy, it seems, can be a lot harder to do. Financial Strain So while some of Rabin's clients are taking the plunge, others are hesitating, figuring they'll ride out the worst of the economic storm, hoping their homes will regain value, their stock portfolios rise again, their 401(k)'s recoup before the pie needs to be cut. "These days, a lot of people can't afford to even maintain one home, let alone two homes with two mortgages or rents, cable, electricity, phone, two health insurance policies," Rabin says.
And there's a whole other group that's taking up Rabin's time these days: Clients who are already divorced or separated, and finding they simply can't live up to obligations they made in flusher times. Says Rabin: "They're saying, 'I just can't pay for that private school anymore, that sleepaway camp, the piano lessons and the art classes. I know the judge ordered this, but I can't do it anymore.' And so we need to go back to court." Stamm-Philipps said she's seen similar cases locally. "Any kind of decrease, whether it's in child support or spousal support, I think it really hits people really hard," she said. "Some people really can't afford it, and you really can see it a lot." Divorcing couples are paying more attention to where every penny is going at every stage of divorce, she added. "Oftentimes we're seeing buyouts, and we're seeing less income from the buyouts," she said. "We're seeing people fighting over that particular money, especially when there's no more spousal support coming in." Divorce Declining It's way too early to know the impact of the current financial crisis on divorce rates. We do know that divorce has been on the decline in America for the last 25 years, after peaking in 1981. There's a common notion that one of two U.S. marriages end in divorce, but many experts feel the real number is more likely between 40 percent and 45 percent.
The divorce rate did drop sharply during the Great Depression -- couples delayed marriages, as well -- but that wasn't necessarily a good thing, says Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "At the time, people wrote that a silver lining of the Depression was that marriages were being saved," says Coontz. "But domestic violence rates went up. When people are forced by economic pressures to stay in a marriage that has already gone south, that's not good for them or for their kids." "I think when it's over, it's over, regardless," Stamm-Philipps said, though she added people often delay filing for divorce until after the holidays, either because they are trying to make it work or because they are thinking of their children. "Then you usually see a little bit more (filings) after the holidays are over," she said. " The Associated Press contributed to this article.