Recession and divorce, it is said, go together like carriage and horse. Those who labor in Splitsville have several explanations for why that might be. There's the lawyer theory, that money provides the soft fatty tissue that insulates the marital skeleton; once it's cut back and people get a good look at the guts of their relationship, they want out. And there's the marriage-counselor theory, that couples who were never quite on the same page in the checkbook finally get pushed off the ledger by endless bickering over their dwindling resources. And the therapist theory, that financial worries cause stress, stress can cause depression, and depression is a total connubial buzz kill.
"Recessions tend to raise divorce rates," says Nobel laureate and University of Chicago Graduate School of Business economist Gary Becker. "But you won't see a pandemic." Census Bureau figures show that over the past 2 1/2 decades, recessions have had only minor effects on divorce rates, which have been slowly waning since the early '80s after 20 years of steadily rising. Those trajectories have been influenced more by the rise of the women's movement and women's earning power, lower fertility and changes in divorce laws than by dour Dows. The only recorded spike in divorces in the past 75 years came right after World War II.
But the trend lines could change, Becker says, depending on the depth of this recession, striking as it does squarely at people's homes. With the financial baggage that many matrimonial vessels are hauling, it's not yet clear whether more spouses will jump ship or start bailing. What is clear is that everybody involved--from the ultra-wealthy to the completely broke, from family-court judges to therapists--has to figure out a new way to navigate.
The Rich, Who Are Different
Steven Eisman helps dissolve the unions of mostly wealthy clients in Nassau County, N.Y. In the traditional thinking about the recession-led split, non--wage earners "who were willing to stay in a less-than-perfect relationship become less willing once the credit cards are taken away," he says. But recently some lawyers have noticed that as stock prices have plunged, they've gotten inquiries from business owners and investors looking to unhitch now, with the idea that being poorer on paper will work to their advantage when dividing assets.
"In most states, the value of a business is part of the matrimonial pot of money that has to be divided up. Often, assets are set at the time of separation," says Neil Stein, partner at Stein & Glazer in Philadelphia. "I've had several clients come to me recently and say, 'I've wanted to get divorced for years but didn't want to give up half of my business. Now that my business is not worth anything, wouldn't it be a good time to do it?'" Conversely, some nonearning spouses of the very wealthy are also trying to game the nuptial market, attempting to lock in a higher rate in case the economy travels further south.
Sumner Redstone filed for divorce on Oct. 17, when his more than 16 million Viacom shares were at $18.85, down from $39.40 six months ago; his CBS shares had dropped about $288 million in value in the same period. Redstone and his wife Paula reportedly have a prenuptial agreement, so it's unlikely the market has much to do with timing, but Mrs. Redstone divorces a poorer man than she would have six weeks ago.
Among the nonwealthy, the two assets that typically need to be divided are 401(k)s and the family residence. But suddenly 401(k)s aren't worth as much, and that home whose mortgage was the mother of all argument starters is not an asset at all. It can't be sold--or at least not for a price that provides money to start over.