Divorce keeping family law attorneys busier this year

Issue November 2003 By Andrea Barter, Esq.

New Englanders have long been known for their no-nonsense approach to life's hardships. The Puritans, believing divorce to be a civil issue, said that, "A bad marriage is, in fact, bad for the community, so a contract is only valid as long as both parties agree to it."

It shouldn't be surprising then that the first American couple to divorce did so in a Puritan court in 1639 in Massachusetts.

However, bad for the community or not, Massachusetts has traditionally maintained one of the lowest divorce rates in the country. In 2001, Massachusetts averaged only 2.4 divorces per 1,000 residents, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island averaged 5.0, 4.0, and 3.3, respectively. Nevada averaged 6.8, but was closely followed by Arkansas with 6.6 divorces per 1,000 residents.

According to William Ryan, assistant court administrator for the Probate and Family Court Department, the number of divorce cases filed in Massachusetts goes up or down 1 or 2 percent a year. Historically, there have been fluctuations, but no trends.

From 2001 to 2002, the total number of divorce filings in the state increased by just three cases. Preliminary data for 2003 looks just as consistent. However, Ryan and family law practitioners strongly suspect those numbers will increase.

The downturn in the economy is the most likely explanation, as financial difficulties are often alleged as the cause of marital discord. The problems that money once concealed in marriages can no longer be hidden.

Although the evidence is anecdotal, family law attorneys agree they are having as busy a year as they've ever had.

"I just seem to be jammed and most people I talk to seem to be." said Richard D. Packenham of Packenham, Schmidt and Federico of Boston.

Susan A. Huettner, chair of the MBA Family Law Section Council, agrees.

"I have never been so busy in my life," said Huettner of Furman, Cannon in Falmouth.

In addition to stressful economic times, other factors that affect the divorce rates include peoples' disappointed expectations in each other or their financial position; illness of a child or one of the partners; infidelity; or resentment for excessive burdens on one spouse, such as responsibilities for the children, the household or lost employment opportunities, Huettner said.

Huettner has noted an elevation in the level and nature of conflicts. Cases are becoming more "high-pitched." This may be due to taxation, financial stability, children's welfare, assets or the disposition of liabilities.

"These are major life decisions that, in a context of divorce, folks have to deal with all at one time," said Huettner.

Head of her own Fall River firm, attorney Denise Squillante has been in practice for 20 years and "each year there are more cases."

While Squillante can't confirm an increase in her divorce caseload, she has noted an increase in modifications of support.

"Modifications are definitely up in my opinion and that is economy driven: post 9/11 and the downturn of the market, guys with dotcoms, companies downsizing. You can't pay a child or alimony support order if you've lost your job. When the economy is tough, there is more work for attorneys in the probate system because of those issues," Squillante said.

Will parties decide to endure a divorce in this economy versus staying in a marriage until the market picks up?

According to Packenham, "When there's plenty of money, people can afford to get divorced. Individuals don't have to put up with insult. When there's no money they argue about money and get divorced anyway. The trigger event may change as the economy changes, but there will be a trigger."