An Overview of Divorce in America
Whatever one’s opinion of it, divorce has been around since Biblical times, or perhaps even before that. In America in particular, the last century has seen an explosion in the divorce rate that shows little signs of abating. Over the last few decades in particular, it has become virtually impossible for divorce not to have some effect upon everyone in this country, be it on a personal level or through a relative, friend or coworker. On a broader scale, divorce has had an enormous impact on this nation’s economics, religious organizations and legal system. It has also become a growth industry for the legal profession as well, as more and more people realize the devastating impact of a poorly handled divorce in a complex court system.
It is generally accepted that divorce became more common and socially acceptable after the cultural revolutions in America during the 1960’s. As more women entered the workplace, as a whole they were no longer as financially dependant upon a husband as their mothers had been. It became more acceptable and then even strongly encouraged for women to seek personal and professional fulfillment outside of the confines of a traditional marital relationship. As more women worked alongside men, some would argue that these working relationships gave both men and women who were married increased opportunities to engage in extra-marital affairs, a frequent contributing factor cited in divorce.
No doubt other factors were at work as well. As society became more mobile, many couples pursuing careers moved away from extended family and close community and church relationships that may have previously served as both a form of support for the married couple and also as a deterrent to seeking a divorce. Additionally, the sheer pressure of maintaining a two-income household, frequently with children, can lead to a breakdown in communication and quality time together. It is simply more difficult to maintain a relationship when there are frequently just not enough hours in a week for couples to connect. Growing apart is almost inevitable in any relationship where there is not an ongoing sharing process. The pace of modern society cannot help but be a stressor on many relationships.
Regardless of the causes posed by any number of sociologists, politicians, theologians, et al, the bottom line is that divorce is now an important part of American culture and thus the legal system. The law, in this realm as in any other, evolves in response to societal demand. As divorce became more common, there were naturally more legal precedents set and more legislation passed to accommodate the process and attempt to provide consistency in the courtroom. Divorce law became a specialty all its own, with the necessity of attorneys able to navigate the increasing complexity of divorce law.
According to common lure, half of all marriages in America will end in divorce. While this is more or less accurate, it is an average that doesn’t necessarily account for differences in the ages of marrying and divorcing couples or whether the situation is a first or subsequent marriage. Irregardless, society undeniably continues to suffer from frequent breakdowns of family units in all of their myriad forms.
According to the Center for Disease Control, data shows conclusively that first marriages that began between the 1950’s and 1970’s showed an increased divorce rate over prior decades. Additionally, the probability that second marriages from the 1980’s onward will end or have ended in divorce has also risen markedly. “In the second half of the twentieth century, the proportion of people’s lives spent in marriage due to the postponement of marriage to later ages and higher rates of divorce.”
It is noteworthy that the CDC has conducted in depth research into divorce as it is deemed a public health issue. The mental health and economic repercussions of divorce, which is frequently a factor in the impoverishment of both adults and children, have a direct effect upon the health of much of America. According to The Heritage Foundation, “there’s the connection between divorce and poverty. According to Mary Corcoran, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, household income for children living with two parents averaged $43,600. It dropped to $25,300 following a divorce.” Aside from the stress of single-parenting with no backup partner, the economics of divorce leave many with poor or no health care, inadequate nutrition and living in substandard housing.
Countless other studies back up the increasing divorce rate. According to the nonprofit organization Divorcerate.org, “The divorce rate in America for first marriage, vs. second or third marriage [breaks down as follows:] 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce, according to Jennifer Baker of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Missouri.”
One would assume that someone going through their second or third divorce would have an easier time of it than they did the first time, being as they have at least some familiarity with the process. The Hollywood culture of throwaway marriages makes it appear that experience makes a divorcing couple more amicable, but this is not necessarily reality. The breaking of any emotional attachment of this magnitude is bound to cause pain and hostility. Couples going through an initial divorce would seem to be more likely to be confounded or intimidated by the legal process, but nothing prevents subsequent divorces from being any less difficult. In fact, they may be more troublesome – a first divorce can be written off as a mistake, a second or third can begin to seem like a pattern of personal failure.
Second or third divorces are also likely to involve slightly older couples and generate an accompanying fear of facing middle or old age alone. There are also likely to be more property issues to settle as an older couple has had time to accumulate more debts and assets. The only relief may be that there are commonly less custodial issues (unless of course they have had children with a second or third partner). This may be somewhat of a generalization, but it gives one an idea of what may be significant to the about to be divorced, especially when the pool of second and third divorces appears to be growing.
According to a recent New York Times article: “…third marriages are, by logic, more common among older Americans, and when broken down by age the census figures show a significantly higher incidence of marriage for certain groups. Eight percent of men and 6 percent of women in their 50s had married three or more times, 2001 figures show, and so had 7 percent of men and 6 percent of women in their 60s. That’s likely to rise as
people who grew up in the 1970s, when divorce became more commonplace, reach midlife, Dr. Cherlin said.”
Areas and Trends in Divorce Law
As marriage is a legal institution, its dissolution through the courts generally boils down to business. The law is designed to deal with the cold hard facts more than it is with the emotional issues. The goal of most divorce legislation is to mete out a somewhat equitable division of debts and assets, ensure that the custody and financial care of any children is established and dissolve any further legal obligations between the parties. In many ways, it is like the demise of any other business venture. This is where it becomes vital to have a competant attorney to protect one’s interests during a particularly emotionally turbulent time.
Most states no longer favor “at fault” actions in which one party sues the other for cause: adultery, abuse, neglect. With the sheer volume of cases, as well as the lessening of societal injunctions against issues such as extramarital affairs, it has been more expedient to fast track divorces as “no fault actions”. Various states do have certain preliminary requirement, but they are generally minimal. For example, in Pennsylvania, the couple must either both consent to a divorce or have been separated for a period of two years. Other states have residency requirements, commonly six months. In general, even with these brakes in place, divorce is usually just more of a paper formality than the splashy trials seen in the past.
“No-fault divorce was pioneered in the United States by the state of California when Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law the Family Law Act of 1969…” By 1977, nine states had adopted these no fault divorce laws and by the present time, every state except for New York has followed suit and taken this route. These laws have made it vastly easier for parties to obtain a divorce for any reason, usually citing irretrievable breakdown or irreconcilable differences as the only necessary causative factor. This is a convenience for the courts and for the party seeking the divorce but it may leave a party to an unwanted action feeling extremely helpless. Particularly when one party has been severely wronged, the innate need for justice is left unsatisfied.
This common removal of the ability of one partner to blame the other partner except in extreme circumstances has facilitated the courts in granting divorces without lengthy legal proceedings. The lack of fault arguments generally means that courts just rubber stamp what they consider an equitable division of property, instead of awarding alimony or other perks to one spouse who would have previously been viewed as more of a victim. The assumption is that even a career housewife or stay at home mother is suddenly able to enter the work force and fend for herself and her children. This may be far from the truth and equally far from what this party would consider to be fair, thus many states now require mediation and pretrial conferences, in hopes that any issues will be resolved without coming before the courts. Frequently, the results are still far from desirable even with these efforts. The focus of the court is not to prevent divorce but to avoid as many lengthy court battles as possible, perhaps at the expense of the party who didn’t want one in the first place.
As a society, Americans in general have come to accept divorce, even second and third ones, as a fact of life. The stigma that existed prior to the 1960’s has all but disappeared, except among a few conservative factions. For the most part, it is necessary to have an experienced divorce attorney to assist one in getting the best deal possible during a divorce. Like most other areas of modern life, divorce is still frequently more complex than the laws would portray it. The repercussions can last for a lifetime. So while it has become increasingly easy and more acceptable to divorce in the last few decades, hammering out the terms that will make life as bearable as possible for all concerned cannot always be reduced to simple statutory formulas.
In an area of law where the very fabric of lives, families and society itself is at stake, it is extremely important that legal professionals have some understanding not just of the law, but of the impact of a divorce on anyone involved. Each divorcing couple has different issues and cannot fit into a cookie cutter mold that the court is used to stamping out. Thus, it is critical that anyone embroiled in a divorce action, by choice or not, seek a sensitive and experienced attorney early in the process while damages can still be mitigated as much as possible. Not to do so is akin to jumping (or being thrown) out of an airplane without a parachute.
CDC: Monitoring the Nations Health: Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage In the United States, Vital and Health Statistics, Series 23, Number 22, July 2002.
The Heritage Foundation, Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service,
Mireya Navarro, The New York Times, 2007, April 1.
No Fault Divorce,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-fault_divorce#The_Uniform_Marriage_and_Divorce_Act