Estranged spouses increasingly waiting out downturn to divorce

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010; B01

In the Great Recession, breaking up is hard to do.

With housing values depressed and jobs disappearing, divorce has become a luxury beyond the reach of some couples. There is often not enough money to pay for separate households or to hire lawyers, fight over children and go to court.

What has always been painful is now desperate and confounding, with a growing number of couples deciding to wait out the economic storm while others take new approaches -- such as living together as they separate.

"I have lots of files sitting in the drawer, where people can't move forward," says David Goldberg, a divorce lawyer and mediator in Gaithersburg. He has been working in family law for 44 years and says he has never seen a time like this one.

Lately, he said, "I have a lot of clients who have ended up in bankruptcy."

The difficulties of divorce in the downturn are familiar to Paulene Foster, a 42-year-old federal worker from Olney, who says her precarious finances forced her to wait a year. If that wasn't enough, she also shared a house with her estranged husband -- him in the basement, her upstairs. Strapped months went by as the couple were saddled with a suburban townhouse that would not sell.

"It was a mess," Foster said.

Her divorce, filed last month with a $105 check after going to a self-help law clinic in Montgomery County, comes as the national rate of failed marriages has declined slightly -- not necessarily because divorce-minded couples are happier than before but, some experts suggest, because they don't have the money to call it quits.

At one Woodbridge law firm, 20 to 25 percent of clients seeking a divorce live under the same roof as their estranged spouse to save money as they await court action.

Other couples say they are stymied by the grim reality that they owe more on the family home than they could get if they sold it.

How do they start over if debt is all that's left to divide?

Heather Hostetter, who has a divorce practice in Bethesda, said that many couples used to divorce with enough equity in a house so that both spouses could re-create lives not so different from their old ones.

"It used to be you could go own another home," she said. "Maybe it's a little smaller, maybe it's not in the same neighborhood.

"Now you see people who go from homeowners to renters."

Divorce and bankruptcy

Facing harsher circumstances, Marissa Fuller, who works in child care in Fairfax City, says her husband's job loss and then his underemployment had an accumulating impact. They had relationship troubles. They fell short on bills month after month. She tired of begging utility companies to turn back on the family's water and electricity.

In January, she filed both for bankruptcy and divorce, sure that the economic tension and the discord that came with it took a toll. "That really made the marriage crumble," she said. Fuller found housing through a nonprofit program and is saving for her own apartment, but she says the math of providing for two children on her salary seems nearly impossible.

Experts say that divorce claims slightly more than 40 percent of marriages. Rates calculated by the National Marriage Project show a modest decline in divorce during 2008, the first year of the recession, when 838,000 cases were granted in 44 states -- at a time when growing economic strain might have produced a spike in divorce. A year earlier, 856,000 divorces were finalized. Scores of studies show a link between tough times and divorce.

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says some families are pulling together amid the economic turmoil, and others that want to split up are postponing until they see a rebound in the economy and in home values. A divorce can cost as little as $100 on a do-it-yourself basis with little in dispute and $10,000 to $20,000 -- or more -- for a divorce that ends up in court.

Still, dividing into two households can prove the more daunting task -- the same income being used to cover an extra housing payment, extra utility bills, separate groceries. This can be tricky when a home has no equity or line of credit to draw from.

In Manassas, lawyer Kirk Wilder says that in some cases, the house is so void of value that neither party wants to be stuck with it. "It used to be, 'Well, I want the house,' " he said. "Now it's, 'You take the house.' That's a huge change."

The economics of breaking up are a little better in the District and parts of Northern Virginia, where spouses can live in the same house during the required separation period, as long as they share little more than the space around them. No sex. No meals. No togetherness.

"They don't do each other's laundry, they don't eat together, they don't go to the kids' soccer game together," says Pat Hammond, a lawyer in Prince William County who advises clients with increasing frequency about how to get divorced without moving out of the house. "If they live in a three-bedroom townhouse, and they have four kids, it ain't going to work."

A place to sleep

Steve Halbert, an Arlington County resident who divorced in 2008, attests to the difficulty of the proposition.

His wife lived in one bedroom; he lived in another. He tried to work as much as possible to stay out of the house. "If you're in the same room, then a fight is waiting to happen," he said. For all of the struggle, his mortgage is still upside down 18 months later -- and he still does not have a way to refinance his house and clear his ex-wife's name from the mortgage loan.

Halbert, a commercial real estate appraiser, says he earns half of what he did in the boom days and now pays alimony. "There used to be a lot of disposable income," he said, "and now it's, 'Be glad you have a place to sleep.' "

Prince William lawyer Larry Fabian says perhaps a quarter of his clients live together while they seek a divorce, which was almost unheard of five or so years ago. "It's really difficult," he says of their experiences. "It's pretty much the worst of all worlds."

Then again, some would say it is even harder in Maryland, which requires a full year of separate residences for mutual and voluntary divorce. That requirement is economically difficult for some; impossible for others.

Jesslyn Haskins, 42, a nurse and mother of three in Upper Marlboro, says a judge threw out her divorce case because she and her ex-husband had shared the same house during their separation. She says she then left, moving in with friends and ultimately getting an apartment, as relations grew more bitter and the mortgage went unpaid. Now divorced, she says she lives in the house and pays the mortgage but is in jeopardy of foreclosure because of missed back payments.

The National Marriage Project's Wilcox says working-class couples, who already have high rates of divorce, are especially vulnerable to a recession-related breakup because they are hit harder by unemployment, which is a significant predictor of divorce. Men, in particular, see themselves as breadwinners and are prone to feelings of worthlessness and depression during lengthy periods without a job, Wilcox says. "We would predict this recession is having a pretty big impact on working-class couples," he says.

In terms of divorce, the recession bears similarities to the Great Depression, says Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, noting that in the 1930s, divorce rates fell amid the worst of the economic crisis, only to rise as the country recovered. "Troubled economic times breed troubled marriages," he says. "But whether those marriages end in divorce right away is another thing."

Cherlin said the recession has probably created "a backlog of unhappy married couples who would like to get a divorce soon but can't afford it," and he predicted a surge in cases during the first several recovery years. "The longer this severe economic downturn continues," he said, "the larger the backlog will be."

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