Image: Mike Kemp / Rubberball Productions
The economy has family law attorneys working double-time as hard financial times are wreaking havoc on America's broken families.
Lawyers who specialize in divorce and custody disputes say they have witnessed a flood of activity in family courts in recent months:
• A rising number of spouses are requesting that their child support and alimony obligations be modified, citing hard times.
• More feuding couples are struggling to reach divorce settlements because all the assets are worth less.
• Many couples are putting divorce off altogether because they can't afford it, while some wealthier ones are actually seizing on the economy and getting divorced, knowing that they'll have less to hand over to the other spouse.
"We are jammed, jammed. I think it's because we have the higher-end clients ... and the clients are pouring in," said Lynne Gold-Bikin, who heads the family law practice at Philadelphia's Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby. "This is a great time for wealthy people to get divorced because their assets are down. So if you want to keep the house, perfect time. If you want to keep the 401(k), perfect time."
Gold-Bikin said that her clients aren't actually telling her these things. But, she said, "I see what's going on."
Gold-Bikin's comments come on the heels of several reports that detail the impact the economy is having family law cases.
In a recent survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 39 percent of the nation's top divorce attorneys cited an increase in requests for smaller child support payments. Additionally, 42 percent of the members reported a rise in the number of changes made to alimony payments.
"When a divorced person loses a job or has take a pay cut, a request to make modifications to a child support or alimony payment arrangement often follows," AAML president Gary Nickelson said in a statement. "With job losses becoming so widespread, our members are subsequently noticing a sizeable increase of these modifications taking place."
A 2008 AAML survey also found that fewer people are getting divorced because of the economy. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents to the AAML survey reported that they typically see a decline in the number of divorces during national economic downturns rather than an increase, while 19 percent cited an increase during challenging times.
Susan Moss of New York's Chemtob Moss Forman Talbert, which specializes in family law, said that while she is actually seeing fewer divorce cases, her existing ones have become more problematic and time consuming. She said a growing problem for lawyers is settling divorces because no one can figure out how much assets are worth anymore.
Determining the value of a home or a business isn't an easy task, she noted, because nothing is worth what it was in years past.
"Actually, we are seeing fewer divorces, but the divorces we have are more complicated because they're more difficult to settle because there are not as many resources as there used to be," Moss said. "We are spending a lot of time fighting over pennies. The worst cases are where we have been fighting for extended periods of time, and what we're fighting over has been lost in the stock market."
"You should settle today, because tomorrow it may be worth half," Moss said.