This article originally appeared in the October 26, 2009 (Morris County NJ) Daily Record and on the Daily Record web site.
Bad economy puts divorces on hold
More want to revisit support payments
By LORRAINE ASH • STAFF WRITER • October 26, 2009
From driving to shopping to eating out, the punishing economy is changing the way we live. Now, it seems, it’s changing the way we divorce.
Two trends are dominating divorce these days, according to statistics kept by the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts:
- New divorce filings in Morris County went down 11 percent from July 2008 through June 2009.
- During the same period, the reopenings of divorce judgments went up by 8 percent as those who have lost jobs or are earning less sought to reduce payments they could no longer meet.
Two well-known matrimonial attorneys in Morris point to the same reason for both trends: money. Judges are trying to hear reopened cases more rapidly than in the past, the lawyers say, because the longer middle-class people struggle to make support payments beyond their reach, the more rapidly they fall into poverty.
That’s what happened to one 59-year-old sheet metal worker, unemployed for a year and living in a two-room apartment with a shower in his kitchen because he has been unable to get his alimony payments reduced in Hudson County courts. His name and those of some others involved in divorces are being withheld by the Daily Record. Depending on his elderly mother to make COBRA payments for him and his college-age child, he eats and does laundry at friends’ houses even as his unemployment checks are channeled directly to the New Jersey Family Support Payment Center and then to his ex-wife and child in Morris County.
“The alimony I agreed to seven years ago was based on the overtime I made on asbestos work,” said the sheet worker. “I can’t do that work now. Too grueling. And it’s hard to get any job. Who are you going to hire to carry materials up a ladder to the top of a building — the 29-year-old or the 59-year-old? And I understand that, too. Thirty years ago, I was the 29-year-old.”
When his unemployment runs out, he will have to liquidate the one-third of his pension money that remained after his divorce settlement, according to his attorney, Janet Porro of Pequannock, who specializes in family law. After that, if he still doesn’t find a job, he may face jail time.
“Just about every divorce I do has some issue that relates to the economy,” Porro said. “Sometimes it’s that people can’t afford to pay alimony or child support. Or that a house is being foreclosed or people owe more on it than it’s worth. Or that people can’t afford to live separately.”
The result is that fewer people are filing for divorce now simply because they don’t have the money to file. Instead, they are biding their time.
To be more precise, mostly women are waiting, according to Monifa Brinson-Mulraine, a sociology lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University with a specialty in studying the family.
“American women generally are twice as likely to be the initiators of divorce when compared to men,” she said. “If we see new filings for divorce are 11 percent down in Morris County, some of what we can conclude is that fewer women are filing.”
Women file even though they are more likely to take on custody of their children, Brinson-Mulraine said. There were 10.4 million single-mother families in the United States in 2006, compared to 2.5 million single-father families, according to Census numbers that include but are not limited to divorced heads of households.
That women initiate filing is historically true, according to a 2000 study called “These Boots are Made for Walking,” published in the American Law and Economics Review, an academic journal. It states that now more than two-thirds of American divorces are initiated by women, in part because a woman has more freedom when divorced than when married. For instance, as a custodial parent she can spend the money her husband pays her exactly as she wants, which may not have been true in her marriage.
But when do women file? When they feel economically empowered, according to Brinson-Mulraine, who said that the all-time high in American divorce occurred in 1946 after World War II. Women had been working during the war and feeling a new sense of independence and financial freedom.
“So they decided to end unhappy marriages,” she said.
But not so now.
“Divorce creates a great deal of anxiety and fear, but imagine what emotions it brings up when you’re hearing statistics about 10 million Americans being unemployed,” Brinson-Mulraine said.
That’s particularly the case when one of the unemployed is a woman’s former spouse, unable to provide alimony and child support, she said.
This pervasive discouragement is reflected in attendance at the annual seven-week Fall Divorce Workshop offered by the Women’s Center at the County College of Morris. This year, the first three weeks of the free workshop drew 27 women, according to Rosemary Costello, legal education coordinator for the center.
Last year the workshop drew 82 women during those three weeks. In 2007, it drew 63.
“I think a major reason for the low attendance,” Costello said, “is that women feel they cannot even gather information since this economic climate is so poor.”
Under the same roof
Even when some women do file for divorce, they don’t have the money to leave.
Jeanie Smith of Florham Park filed for divorce in May 2008. In a more economically prosperous time, she might have moved out and rented an apartment or room of her own. But not during a recession.
“I moved down to the dining room,” said the 55-year-old. “We have pocket doors there and I put a curtain up over the doorway into the kitchen. I lived there for a year.”
Her husband and daughter lived in the rest of the house.
Because of the economy and because rents in Morris County are High, Smith didn’t want to spend what little savings she had from recently inherited money on an apartment. She wanted to set her money aside for her daughter’s college education.
Smith also stayed in her home because she wanted to keep a relationship with her daughter and because she did not want to abandon the family. But throughout the year she and her daughter became more estranged.
This past May, Smith, a certified life coach with a healing arts practice in Morristown, rented a condo of her own. The rent is the cost of her peace of mind.
Couples may want desperately to part ways, but if one spouse has lost a job and the family home can only be sold at a substantial loss, there is no way to enforce any financial settlement to which they agree, according to Porro. An ex-husband cannot pay alimony if he has no money. If a couple cannot liquidate their home, there is no wealth to split.
While some couples, like the one of which Smith was a part, live for a time in the same house during a divorce, others keep living together even afterward.
Steve, a 49-year-old builder in Oak Ridge, was divorced in May 2006 but has for the past three years been living with his wife and three children in the same house they shared during the marriage. The reason: Neither can move on, without selling the house, which is mostly paid off, he said.
“It’s very stressful, not great,” Steve said. “Before I got divorced I spent a lot of money on counseling — tens of thousands of dollars — to try to save my marriage because I do honestly love my ex-wife. It didn’t save my marriage but it taught me a lot, such as how to deal with people, including her. I don’t listen to the bad. I don’t let it in. That’s how I deal with living here.”
Recently the home sold, but Steve isn’t happy about the sale because the ex-couple is losing $200,000 on the deal.
In even worse shape, Porro said, are those couples that cannot pay their mortgages and face losing their highest-priced assets.
Fees and more fees
Toss legal fees into the equation and divorce can feel like a quagmire.
Legal fees for a divorce can range from the initial retainer of $5,000, to a medium range of $10,000 to $15,000, to a high range of $50,000 to $100,000, according to Attorney William Laufer of Laufer, Dalena, Cadicina, Jensen and Boyd in Morristown. Laufer, who represented heiress Jacqueline Mars in her second divorce, handles mostly high-end divorces. He is a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
“When you have a business involved, it can cost thousands just to hire a forensic accountant to value the business,” Laufer said. “Let’s assume you’re going to represent a woman whose husband is a doctor and has his own medical practice. It’s $10,000 easily, just in accounting fees, to value that practice.”
High legal fees are causing some people to represent themselves, get pummeled in court and stuck with bad orders, according to Porro. In the meantime, others are forgoing their remedies.
“Maybe I can lower your support $100 a month,” she said, “but, big deal, it’s going to take five years to recoup what you paid me.”
She said half her fees are being paid by parents or a third party, such as an aunt or a grandparent.
“I also had more people pay me with a credit card last year than ever before,” Porro said. “It’s amazing.”
Because people can’t afford to divorce, more are turning to counseling, according to Patrice Picard, executive director of Family Service of Morris County, a 196-year-old nonprofit that offers many services, including help for families in times of stress.
But counseling also can carry a high price tag, with some local therapists charging as much as $150 an hour.
“We are hearing that some counselors are seeing a downturn in clients because the clients no longer have insurance,” Picard said. “Yet there is a bigger need for counseling.”
That reality translates into an uptick for Family Service. In addition to couples who would like to divorce are others who are just under much more stress because of financial and other difficulties, Picard said.
“We have a sliding scale fee arrangement,” she said, “and are seeing more requests for it.”
Porro said she has encountered bogus domestic violence claims filed in situations where a couple is living together only because they can’t afford to live apart. The intent in such cases, she said, is simply to get one spouse out of the house.
“The flip side is when people don’t want to be living together and hostilities are so high that you’re seeing domestic violence,” she said. “That is a concern.”
Calls into the Jersey Battered Women’s Service helpline are up 20 percent in the down economy, according to Patty Sly, executive director, who added that the number of nights women and children stay in the safe house of the service is up 30 percent. But she is careful to add that a down economy does not create abusers.
“It’s likely to escalate an abuser’s level of abuse because of added pressure,” Sly said.
Perhaps the only group in which the divorce rate is undiminished, if not growing, is the wealthy.
Laufer, the attorney who handles high-end clients, said he is busier now than at any point in his career. Most people who file for divorce have been unhappy for several years, he said, and realize divorces are in their futures. Since his clients have some money, they can afford legal fees and tend to see the down economy as an opportunity.
“The way the men see it, their incomes are down and they realize their alimony obligation is going to be based upon their income. So it’s a good time for them to get divorced,” he said. “The women, on the other hand, start to see that their husbands’ income is going down and that the asset base is going down. They think, ‘I better get divorced now before there’s nothing left.’ That’s the trend.”
But having the money to file for divorce, or even having assets with more value than most people, doesn’t make divorce financially easy.
A 50-year-old New Vernon pharmaceutical executive who filed for divorce last fall has been forced into early retirement because of the economy. Now she finds herself living in a $2.5 million home and responsible, without an income, for the considerable cost of maintaining and cleaning it.
“You can’t truly get divorced until you sell your house,” she said. “A lot of people worked all their lives for their home and don’t want to sell it at a great loss. So you wait. You might get divorced in every way but you don’t actually truly settle and divide assets until the house sells. It’s all very much Catch 22 at the moment.”
Her reality: For the first time in her life, she is dependent on project work, which is hard to find, and alimony.
Her strategy: To hold onto the home and property as best she can until the spring.
“I’m hoping that, if the unemployment numbers don’t get worse, perhaps they will loosen up some mortgage money and I’ll be able to sell my house,” she said. “I negotiated for the house pretty well at the time we bought it in July 2006 and didn’t buy at the height of the market.”
If the house doesn’t move by the spring, though, she will “drop it and do whatever I can.” In the meantime, she said, the pain of breaking up a 25-year marriage is extraordinary.
“It’s harder perhaps for some than others,” she said, “but it is one of the hardest things people go through.”
Leaving the state
The high cost of everything in New Jersey is driving some residents suffering from the losses of divorce, completed or not, out of state. In her practice Porro has encountered people who want to move out.
Ultimately, that’s what Smith has in mind as well. In her Florham Park condo she keeps an empty room for her daughter, just in case communications open between them. Just so her daughter will have a place to stay or to visit.
“I will always keep reaching out to her until she comes back to me,” Smith said.
But, financially speaking, Smith figures she can hang on just until June, when her daughter graduates high school. Then she’ll have to make a break for it, move in with relatives in Texas, handle the divorce long distance, and start life anew.