New York Poised to Pass No-Fault Divorce, Joining Rest of U.S.

New York, the only U.S. state that doesn’t allow no-fault divorces, is poised to change.

As the Assembly weighs a bill to permit quicker uncontested marital breakups, opponents including religious and women’s- rights groups say it may be tough to keep the change from becoming law. Last week, the 62-member Senate passed a no-fault divorce measure, 32-29. In the Assembly, almost half the members co-sponsored legislation to add the rule.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan, said he supports making uncontested dissolutions easier.

“No-fault divorce as a concept should be part of our domestic-relations law,” Silver told reporters in the Capitol on June 17. “There are a lot technical things that have to be worked out now.”

Governor David Paterson, a Democrat, would discuss the matter with interested parties and review letters from the public if a no-fault bill reaches his desk, said Jessica Bassett, a spokeswoman.

Democrats, who control the Assembly, haven’t discussed a schedule for voting on the no-fault bill from Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, a Manhattan Democrat, said Dan Weiller, a Silver spokesman.

Married couples in New York must be legally separated for 12 months to get an uncontested divorce. If they don’t want to wait a year, a spouse must claim adultery, imprisonment, abandonment or cruel and inhuman treatment, according to state law. Because of these rules, couples seeking an amicable divorce must lie in court to avoid delay, Bing said.

Adding Irretrievable Breakdown

The Senate’s bill, passed on June 15, would enable couples to divorce if the “relationship between husband and wife has broken down irretrievably for a period of six months.”

While the bill doesn’t delve into other elements of divorce law, such as community-property rules, it does say a divorce won’t be granted until issues such as financial matters and child custody are resolved.

Groups ranging from women’s-rights organizations to religious conservatives held a joint briefing in Albany yesterday on why they oppose the change.

Marcia Pappas, president of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter, said the change would make it easier for a wealthier spouse to end a marriage without providing fair compensation to a former partner.

“No-fault takes away any bargaining leverage the non- moneyed spouse has,” she said. “This is usually the woman.”

‘Difficult Fight’

Some opponents say preventing passage in the Senate was their best hope. Now, “it’s a much more difficult fight for us,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, a lobbying group. “We’re very disappointed.”

The conference opposes the bill because it may discourage divorce alternatives such as family therapy, he said.

The measure also may make it easier for an abusive spouse to end a marriage without providing for a former partner, said Kevin O’Brien, a matrimonial lawyer with O’Brien & Associates in Albany. While he doesn’t favor the change, he said he expects it to pass.

“It doesn’t address the socioeconomic issues that result when there’s a divorce,” he said.

In New York, 7 percent of men and 10 percent of women reported getting a divorce in the past year, according to a Pew Research Center study of U.S. Census Bureau data from a 2008 survey. Those figures put New York at the low end of the divorce rate for both men and women, according to the Pew Center.

In Nevada, the state with the highest rates for both sexes, 13 percent of men and 16 percent of women reported divorcing in the previous 12 months, Pew said. Nationwide, 9 percent of men and 12 percent of women gave those responses, Pew said.

Pappas said she hopes Paterson will reject the change, even if it passes the Assembly. She said the governor is looking for ways to cut state costs, and if no-fault divorce becomes law, more women may need public assistance.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Wechsler in Albany, New York, at alwechs@juno.com.

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