New York Divorcees Finally Get Their Wish

As we conclude this hard-times summer of the “stay-cation,” New Yorkers who are contemplating divorce can finally end their marriages in a civilized way, without leaving home.

Until August, New York was the last state to require a divorcing spouse to prove that the other party was guilty of cruelty, adultery or abandonment. Every other state has had no-fault divorces for decades. As a result, New Yorkers had to suffer through needlessly prolonged, contentious and expensive marital litigation.

Draconian divorce laws once were commonplace. Reno, Nev., created an entire tourist industry around divorce after Mary Pickford won her divorce there in 1920 under Nevada’s then-unusually lax divorce law. The state even changed the required length of residency from six months to six weeks in 1931, hoping to draw more potential divorcees.

This culture of divorce-vacations continued until 1969, when California became the first state to pass a no-fault divorce law. In the next 15 years most other states followed, leaving Reno to those looking for skiing, gambling or pork ribs.

Absurdly, New York stood alone as the last state to demand proof of fault in divorce cases. At best, this encouraged mutually-agreed-upon perjury from husband and wife. At worst, and more often, it led to huge and messy legal battles, especially for those without means to go elsewhere to get their divorce. (In addition to Reno, Mexico was also popular in the 1960s.) Lawyers profited, but spouses suffered.

Opponents of no-fault divorce claimed that the practice made divorce too easy, so that couples who might have worked things out gave up too soon. Others feared that women especially would be in danger of being abandoned or impoverished by their husbands. These arguments were often, if not always, tied to religious beliefs. Dennis Poust, the spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, complained that New York’s new law would make it “easier to get out of marriage than it is to get out of a cell phone contract.”

New York’s divorce laws led to other evils, however, beyond perjury and inconvenience. The prior law often gave one partner unwarranted leverage in divorce proceedings. No-fault divorce mitigates that danger. “It removes the financial incentive for one party to keep the other in a bad marriage,” according to Paul Talbert, a partner at Chemtob Moss Forman & Talbert, LLP.

Financial planners often see divorce as one of the most serious threats to a couple’s financial security. To some extent this is unavoidable, since divorce creates two sets of household expenses where one previously existed. But much of the financial damage is self-inflicted by unnecessary fighting. New York’s system of contested divorces aggravated the situation. When people are trapped in unhappy relationships, they ought to be able to get out as painlessly as possible.

Marriage is really two institutions – civil and religious. New York was the last remaining battleground for religion in the civil divorce arena.

Religious institutions can handle divorce in any way they see fit. A number of faiths, including Orthodox Judaism, do not consider a mere civil divorce sufficient to terminate a marriage. That’s their business. But religion has no business dictating the way civil marriage is administered.

It took New York a while to catch up, but New Yorkers now have one less reason to plan a vacation away from home.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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