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They own a three-bedroom house, lease an SUV and pack a Visa Gold Card with a balance pushing the credit limit. Between them, they pull in about $150,000 a year, just enough to cover the hefty mortgage, the kids’ braces and Friday night take-out pizza. But what the typical Long Island, N.Y., couple does not have is financial wiggle room. And when marital bliss turns to marital bust as it did for some 15,000 Long Islanders last year, slicing up the suburban pie requires sharp lawyering. “They’re making much more money than the average individual, they’ll benefit from George Bush’s tax cut, but they still don’t have enough,” said attorney Stephen Schlissel, with Schlissel, Ostrow, Karabatos, Poepplein & Taub. Schlissel, who launched his own practice with 11 attorneys last year after it split off from Meltzer Lippe & Goldstein, asserts that Long Island couples with carpe diem finances and a lack of marital commitment make his tasks formidable. “It takes three things: patience, patience and more patience,” Schlissel noted. Last year, 7,546 contested and uncontested divorce actions were filed in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to preliminary totals reported by the Office of Court Administration. In 1999 on Long Island, 9,625 divorce actions were filed, and in 1998, some 8,344 actions were filed. Despite the dip last year, Long Island traditionally hovers a few points above the national divorce rate of about 50 percent. The reason? Money. Long Island ranks No. 1 among the nation’s 20 largest market areas in percentage of households with effective buying income equaling $150,000 and more, according to Sales & Marketing Management’s Survey of Buying Power. That top spot largely is due to both spouses — generally well-educated professionals — enjoying economic power, said Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association. And with that power comes independence, Kamer noted, especially for Long Island women, who are less likely to stay in faltering marriages. Moreover, Long Islanders love to spend, and loved it even more last year, when sales tax revenues jumped 8 percent, according to Kamer. Add to the mix the “jumbo mortgages,” as Kamer called them, in Long Island’s housing market, and breaking up is hard to do for most couples who have little, if anything, left at the end of a pay period. “It’s financially traumatic, even in a strong economy,” Kamer said. TIME OFF While both spouses often have promising careers on Long Island, many times the wives have put their jobs on hold to raise the children, said Schlissel Ostrow partner Elena Karabatos. That is where divorce becomes complicated and expensive. New York provides for rehabilitative maintenance, a monetary award to the spouse re-entering the job market. The award is based on a valuation of how long it will take and how expensive it will be to allow the spouse, typically the wife, to make herself marketable in the workforce. Usually involving a complex analysis, the production of a specific dollar amount requires forensic accountants to crunch the numbers. “You get support to the point where the court decides you should be making a lot of money,” said Karabatos, adding that Long Island salaries sometimes fall short. “But the only places they could earn this is in Manhattan.” Long Island couples who decide to split also face the cost of forensic accountants to determine so-called enhanced earning capacity. In other words, if a spouse, usually the wife, puts the partner through medical school, law school or other programs, she is entitled to earnings from his business. Regarded by many divorce lawyers as fair in concept but flawed in implementation, enhanced earning capacity, evolved through case law, can be a nebulous figure based on future earnings that leads lawyers to haggle. Divorce attorney Harriette M. Steinberg, a sole practitioner in Westbury, N.Y., asserts that the added expense to determine enhanced earning capacity can have a significant impact on what remains to be divided. “Sometimes I have to say to a client, ‘How much justice can you afford?’ “ Another common situation involves the spouse, usually the wife, who returns to work during the marriage after staying at home with the children. She may obtain a teaching certificate, a nurse’s license or a real estate agent’s license. When the couple decides to divorce, the court must value that certificate and offset the husband’s enhanced earning capacity with the value of her certificate. One result of all that figuring, Schlissel said, is many more cases going to trial. He estimates that 40 percent of the cases he handles now result in trial, a number that has doubled in his 38 years of practice. The time it takes to get the divorce also has increased. “I tell clients that if they expect it to be done before a year and a half, they’re making a mistake,” Schlissel said. With numbers flying and the clock ticking, many attorneys find themselves getting “sucked into” a legal quagmire, Karabatos maintains, where resolution can become elusive and therefore even more expensive. “A lot of lawyers get so caught up in what’s going on daily that they can find thousands of dollars have been spent, everybody’s skirmishing and nothing — I mean nothing — has been done to move the case to conclusion,” Karabatos said. DETACHMENT NEEDED It takes a certain detachment from the client to avoid getting bogged down in the “craziness,” she added. “You listen, but you remind them that you’re not their friend,” she said. “You help them focus on the bottom-line issues, and you get to a good resolution. Not the best, not the worst, but the one that’s going to get them there.” Because divorce has become so costly and time-consuming, an increasing number of Long Island couples are looking for “creative ways” of splitting, Steinberg said. Her practice is becoming more focused on mediation, where husbands and wives go to settle their differences outside the courtroom. She said that once couples “face the reality of the economic consequences” that divorce entails, they are much more willing to sit down and work out a compromise. Steinberg recently devised an agreement where the wife, who statutorily was entitled to receive a certain amount for child support over a 10-year period, put that amount toward her buyout of her share of the couple’s home. Steinberg notes that from her experience, house-rich couples who strike a balance through mediation are much less “vindictively hostile” than those who end up in court. DISPOSABLE BLISS Although Schlissel concedes that Long Island’s high divorce rate means steady business for his firm, he laments that marriages often become dispensable arrangements. With an average household income of $64,800 — a full $15,500 above the New York State average — Long Islanders may be the best, or worst, examples of upwardly mobile suburbanites. What is more, the region is expected to continue to flourish, with a top-10 ranking among the expected wealthiest metros in 2004, according to the Sales & Management Marketing survey. Psychologist Dr. Joan Atwood, a Hofstra University professor who works with divorcing couples, asserts that Long Island marriages face “tremendous pressure” to maintain a standard of living that is one of the highest in the country. And when the pressure is on, many couples want a way out. But on rare occasions, despite their disillusion with the American dream, couples on the home-stretch to finalizing the divorce take an about-face and reconcile. “That, to me, is the essence of being human,” Karabatos said. “It’s never too late. I love that.

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