As recession deepens, it's cheaper to ride it out than divorce

For many couples thinking of divorce, one sobering realization is that if they are struggling to maintain their current household, it will be painful -- if not impossible -- to support a second one.

Many financial questions come up when considering the consequences of ending a marriage, and apparently more couples here and nationwide are deciding it's cheaper to stay together and ride out the recession.

"It's a luxury to actually get a divorce these days," said Joan Weber, a marriage and family therapist in Mt. Lebanon.

Civil court records show a steadily declining number of divorce complaints filed in Allegheny County over the past 10 years. There were 3,458 divorces in 1998 compared with 2,749 in 2008, a 21 percent decrease.

Who would have thought the No. 1 reason for divorce might also be the main reason more married couples are staying together -- money.

Interestingly enough, the number of marriage licenses issued in Allegheny County also has fallen over the past decade from 8,036 in 1998 to 6,270 in 2008.

The waning number of couples getting married here could reflect an overall population decline, but it also might suggest that fewer couples are prepared for the financial challenges of matrimony.

"When couples think of marriage these days they want to be secure enough to buy a house," said Carrie Coghill Kuntz, president of D.B. Root & Co., a Downtown investment firm.

"They are looking at marriage more today from a financial prospective. Younger people today want to be financially secure and have financial independence before getting married."

Despite the common notion that America remains plagued by a divorce epidemic, the national per capita divorce rate has been sliding steadily downward since its peak in 1985, according to John Crouch, a divorce attorney in Arlington, Va., and former director of the defunct organization Americans for Divorce Reform.

"Divorces nationwide peaked in 1985 and have been on a decline ever since," he said. "The divorce rate did go up in 2006, but every year since 1985 it has gone down."

No matter how difficult the marriage, there are personal and economic realities that need to be faced before traveling the road to divorce. Who will own the house? Who will get the investments and savings and who will pay child support and child care costs?

"What we are seeing is more couples trying to heal their marriage and reconnect," Mrs. Weber said. "The upside is the high cost of divorce is forcing couples to forgive and choose peace with their partner.

"Years ago, people divorced to find peace. Now they are more pressed to fix a marriage than end it because they don't want to give up their lifestyle."

She added however, that if the relationship is mentally or physically abusive, the couple should split regardless of their finances.

Elizabeth Beroes, owner of Beroes Law Center on Penn Avenue, Bloomfield, said some of the divorce settlements she has been involved with recently provide a snapshot of how couples' personal finances play a role in them deciding to divorce.

"A lot of people are more likely to settle matters rather than litigate who will get the china, the house or the Steelers tickets, because litigation is expensive" Ms. Beroes said. "Refinancings are so difficult now the house stays in both names."

Ms. Beroes said she recently settled a multimillion-dollar divorce in Allegheny County in which the wife will keep the house and has five years to refinance it into her own name.

"That was unheard of two years ago," she said. "We have to change the marital settlement agreement to mirror the economic situation, the fact that it's so difficult to refinance.

"The house is upside down in equity, and the wife does not have enough income to refinance on her own."

Falling home prices and houses that take months if not years to sell are complicating matters for couples that want out of wedlock. Mounting debts, car notes and other loans have made it only more likely that both partners will have to change ZIP codes after a divorce.

"I've seen in the past six months several couples who have come in really wanting to save their marriage because of the expenses involved," said Dr. Stacy Wettstein, a marriage counselor in Shadyside. "Many times couples choose to stay in a house together as a way to cut costs and lead two separate lives. For some people that works. For others it doesn't. With marriage, people are now looking at it from a business point of view."

Tim Grant can be reached at 412-263-1591 or at . First Published February 3, 2009 5:00 AM


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