In a perverse sign of the economic recovery, the US divorce rate, which dipped in the recession, has bounced back, lawyers and matrimonial experts say.
A stronger economy, lower unemployment and a housing market that – while still weak – is no longer in free fall are all contributing to a rebound in divorce filings.
“There is huge pent-up demand,” said Marshal Willick, a Las Vegas matrimonial attorney, who has noted an upturn in his business.
During the recession, couples who were out of work or unable to sell their house stayed married to save money. The percentage of the population 15 years and older who counted themselves divorced dropped to 9.7 in 2009, from 9.9 three years earlier, according to the Census Bureau. More than half of the 1,600 attorneys who are members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported a downturn in their business in 2009, the most recent year for which survey data are available.
Now, those same lawyers are inundated with new clients. Linda Lea Viken, the group’s president, said her practice in Rapid City, South Dakota, was 25 per cent busier this year, compared with the same period in 2009.
One client first approached her about leaving his wife in 2008, but put the divorce on hold when the local bank would not lend him the money to buy her out of their ranch. As property values in the area rebounded following a steep rise in the price of corn and wheat, the once stalled divorce is “moving full steam ahead”, Ms Viken said.
Divorce has not become any less acrimonious but the fights have changed, lawyers said.
“People no longer argue about who’s keeping the house, but about who’s stuck with it,” Mr Willick said.
So-called underwater homes, that are worth less than the balance on their mortgage, are flummoxing judges who cannot decide whether to treat them as an asset or a liability.
In one Las Vegas case, the husband wanted to sell and the wife did not. While they argued, the value of the home continued to fall, said Gary Silverman, their lawyer. The couple is still in the process of splitting.
Other divorce rituals are also going by the wayside. It was once standard practice to make copies of family photos. “But today, people don’t want to shoulder the expense,” said Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, a New Jersey lawyer.
Even in times of economic distress, however, there is only so much misery that people can bear. One divorcing Manhattan man had planned to use the proceeds from his Bernard Madoff account to pay for a new apartment when he had left home.
The man still moved out after Mr Madoff’s investment fund was exposed as a Ponzi scheme. “But he got a much smaller apartment,” said his lawyer, Alton Abramowitz.
By Suzanne Kapner in New York