Image: Mike Kemp / Rubberball Productions
In years past, divorce lawyers could almost always count on increased business after ringing in the New Year. After all, the weeks following the holiday rush were the perfect time for couples on the rocks to finally split up while avoiding the impact of a Christmastime divorce on their children.
But in 2009, the rules have changed for many divorce attorneys. The economic downturn seems to have given many couples second thoughts about untying the knot.
"I'm used to a serious uptick in divorce, and I haven't seen it at all this year," said attorney Marc F. Greene of Washington, Conn., who handles divorces in Litchfield County, Waterbury and Danbury. "I have a smaller practice, but this seems to be reflected in conversations I have with other colleagues. I don't recall anything like this in family law practice, and I've been doing this for  years."
Many of his clients are deciding to stay married simply because of the higher living costs involved following a separation. Because of the soured economy, income is shrinking rapidly for some workers, and spouses who might count on alimony and child support to run a separate household can't count on that money anymore.
Greene noted that one of his clients returned to live with her husband who allegedly had a history of verbal abuse because she couldn't afford to find a new place to live. "I've noticed the idea of keeping two households going [following a divorce] is more and more impossible," Greene said.
And he's also noticed another dimension of family relationships gone bad when he represents minor children in custody cases.
"Over the last year or so, a significant majority of adult respondents have larceny charges pending or they're already incarcerated," Greene said. "It's not directly tied to divorce, but it does feed back to economic instability and the effect on families."
'LIVING ON CREDIT'
Debra B. Marino, an attorney in Orange, Conn., said clients are still coming in the door, but at a slower rate and with significant money problems.
"More people are trying to wait as long as they can [to divorce] because their economic situation is so bad that they can't afford it," she said. "A lot of these people are in single-income households and they're living on credit cards."
That includes a couple who recently came in with $100,000 in credit card debt, a situation that placed the feuding couple on the brink of bankruptcy. Marino said that, more often than ever before, attorneys are suggesting that couples file for bankruptcy and try to work out the financial mess that likely fed into their marriage problems.
"This is becoming more prevalent, and I haven't seen it to the degree that I do today," said Marino, whose entire practice is devoted to family law. "It's become a common theme."
Also more common are judges giving the benefit of the doubt to one party that claims an inability to pay the bills because of lack of work and not holding that party in contempt, Marino said.
"It's actually a credible argument, and it's reality," she said. Marino recently settled a divorce case for a stay-at-home mother whose ex-husband wasn't paying the mortgage because he had been unemployed.
The mortgage was in arrears and the property value of the house plummeted, leaving the property worth less than what is owed. Now the mother has few options for financial recourse because the ex-husband has no money to support her and the children.
"It's a messy situation that no one can figure out," Marino said.
Annual divorce filings in Connecticut have remained consistent over the past 20 years, ranging from about 13,500 to 14,500 a year, according to research conducted by the state's Judicial Branch. But based on some lawyers' experiences so far, those numbers could change significantly in 2009.
Annual pro se filings also have remained consistent -- about 10,000 -- in the past two years, but several attorneys interviewed say they have noticed more pro se parties in divorce proceedings than ever before. In other instances, people are avoiding court and just agreeing to work things out on their own.
"People don't want to spend $20,000 on an attorney," said Kate M. Casagrande, a Shelton, Conn., divorce lawyer. "They're willing to compromise on things so it doesn't cost as much in legal fees."
Attorney Corrine A. Boni-Vendola, of Charles & Boni-Vendola in Hamden, Conn., was recently in the middle of a tumultuous divorce proceeding in which the parties had spent $25,000 in legal fees. "They realized they didn't have the money to keep fighting, so we settled the other day," said Boni-Vendola, whose firm caseload is predominantly family law. "There's more willingness to settle cases when people realize they can't fund their fight."
Attorney Jennifer A. Sadaka in Branford, Conn., said she's dealing with a lot of cases fueled by anger but with few assets to divide. "I just did a five-day trial over a motorcycle," she said. "They're fighting over whatever they can. They're being pettier and they fight more over custody of the kids."
Attorney Thomas D. Colin, of Schoonmaker, George & Colin in Greenwich, Conn., represents several clients in lower Fairfield County who work on Wall Street. He said his firm has not noticed a dramatic impact from the economy and no client has stopped a divorce proceeding, though it has been discussed.
"The fallout may not be felt until later in the year," said Colin, who is past chair of the Connecticut Bar Association's Family Law Section.
On a smaller scale, Colin is noticing some changes in his practice. Parties are filing more post-dissolution modification motions for alimony and child support because people have lost their jobs. "I would think those are going to increase," Colin noted.
Last month, the Connecticut Department of Labor reported that unemployment was up to 7.1 percent after the state lost nearly 21,500 jobs in November and December 2008. Economists expect those numbers to increase as the year goes on.
Tightened lending standards also are keeping people from being able to buy out their spouse's interest in a house, Colin said. Even if the money is available "no one wants to assume the risk because it's declining in value."
That's leaving couples to stay together longer -- in some cases, uncomfortably longer.
Cheshire, Conn., attorney Lisa Cappalli said: "Many people [in previous years] who could sell the house while the divorce is pending can't sell now and have to live together after the divorce."
Meanwhile, with the divorce practice area in flux, lawyers, especially those who are solo or in small firms, are diversifying to stay afloat.
Boni-Vendola, the Hamden attorney, has taken on some personal injury and foreclosure work because of reduced revenues from divorce cases. "More than a few clients owe me money," she said. "It's difficult, but I manage to do it. They pay me in dribs and drabs."
Sadaka, of Branford, has branched out to do bankruptcies, foreclosures, real estate, landlord/tenant, evictions and some civil litigation. Still, 80 percent of her cases are divorce. "I'm taking more payment plans," Sadaka said. "It's very difficult to collect. It's like getting blood from a stone." She's even had clients offer to do office work in lieu of payment, but she has refused to accept such agreements.
Some clients are so far behind on thousands of dollars in payments that Sadaka is considering small claims actions against them in the very near future. One client owes her $10,000, she said.
Suing a client "is a necessary evil," Sadaka said. "When I first opened [in April 2006], I was more concerned about business coming in the door. Now you have to be attached to money."