Does Recession/Depression Increase the Divorce Rate?

The BBC is reporting this morning that there may be an increase in the rate of divorces, particularly the rate of high asset divorce cases, because of the current economic crisis. I don’t see it in my practice.

Let’s get some caveats on the table: First, the BBC story makes no attempt to report on events in the US, only in the UK. Second, I’m a weird bird, not at all typical of divorce lawyers in the US. My legal practice has a razor-sharp focus on couples who are able to be reasonably cooperative and want to stay that way. Because I charge for my work I see just a few truly indigent clients, and I see a sprinkling of high asset clients, but most of the clients I see are middle income. And because my practice is focused exclusively on people who use the Internet, at least one spouse in all my couples has Internet access.

Although I am an atypical divorce lawyer, my guess is that I see more typical divorcing clients than the next 3-5 lawyers put together, simply because I have a high volume and because the big revenue for most divorce lawyers comes from couples who are fighting, who are atypical. That’s a little-understood but clearly established statistic, by the way. By far the majority of divorcing couples are able to be cooperative and wish to stay that way. The only reason the culture thinks otherwise is that the nasty, mudslinging, adversarial divorces are so much more visible.

I say that as a way of submitting to you that I have a unique perspective on people going through divorce. What I have known for years is that my practice is cyclical. When times are good, my practice is strong. People are e-mailing me constantly, and my calendar stays full with the uncontested divorce telephone sessions that are the lifeblood of my legal work. When times are hard and people become fearful about their economic well-being, my practice slows down, and I have time to write notes like this one.

In a sense, this is counter-intuitive; we’ve all heard that money troubles cause divorce, right? Actually, I think money and conflict over money are at the heart of many divorces, but I have a different take on the effect of economic cycles. Here’s the way I’m analyzing it. We know that the majority of leavers are women. Wives initiate 60-65% of divorces, and husbands 35-40%. Because wives tend to earn less, they’re aware of their financial vulnerability once they’re on their own.

In my world where divorcing couples are cooperative, there tends to be less heart-stopping urgency. She knows she needs to leave and get a fresh start, but she doesn’t have to do it today. She can take the time to see when the time is right, when she (and perhaps her children) will be able to survive and thrive financially, and when she will be able to get her husband to agree to a quiet, dignified divorce and avoid the necessity for a noisy, expensive, rancorous one. So when times are hard, she waits. “I don’t like this man,” she says to herself. “I know that my marriage has no future and needs to end. But not now. I better hang on a little longer.” Later, when there’s a boom again, she says to herself, “I guess this is as good a time as any,” and she sends me an e-mail to get started.

You may disagree with me and you may see it differently, but that’s the dynamic I can observe. Of course there are exceptions to the rule; if there weren’t I’d be starving right now, and I’m not starving. But if you’re looking for statistics, I’d look for that one as a statistical trend.

Now about that BBC story. I have a deep and abiding respect for the BBC; I have learned to trust it to provide balanced news coverage even as the big American commercial news organizations seem to be totally dominated by their zeal to sensationalize trivia and to keep us all from asking the questions that really matter. But I’m afraid the BBC has gotten sucked into the most typical of news traps, one in which they allow the anecdotal observations of 2-3 “experts” to substitute for the kind of hard-working, fact-finding journalism they should be doing.

I would be surprised to learn there’s any increase in the divorce rate in the UK or the US right now, even among the rich people who are the focus of the BBC story. I’d be even more surprised to learn there’s any increase in the divorce rate of ordinary middle income people. In all likelihood, the rate is down or unchanged. Neither you, the BBC, nor I will know that for several years, though, after we get the results from the 2010 census.

Finally, because this note talks about my legal practice, here’s the required disclaimer: No representation is made that the quality of the legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.