New York's faulty divorce laws

A commission recommends that the state join the rest of the country in adopting no-fault divorce rules.

Published February 7, 2006 5:06PM (EST)

Finally, it looks as if New York state might join the rest of the country in providing its citizens with equitable divorce laws. Yesterday, a commission appointed in 2004 by the state's chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, called for major revisions in the state's outdated divorce and child custody rules, including finally offering "no-fault divorces," which, the New York Times reports, are available in all other states.

No-fault divorce allows couples to end their marriages by mutual consent, simply because they want to call it quits. "By not allowing couples to end their marriages by mutual consent, New York has kept some of the strictest barriers to divorce in the nation," reports the Times. "Currently, one party in the divorce must allege cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery, or abandonment -- literal or sexual -- for a year. That rule has often resulted in costly legal proceedings and bitter custody fights in cases where both sides want a divorce."

Recommendations have also been made to change the language in custody arrangements from "visitation" -- which Judge Kaye told the Times "seems more appropriate for a prison visit" -- to "parenting time." And perhaps the most progressive of the proposals is one that would "provide funds for legal representation for those who could not afford it. In many cases, low-income spouses either cannot afford to divorce or are obliged to represent themselves."

All of these recommendations would help unclog the courts of petty suits in which spouses are often forced to invent abuses to legitimize their divorce. Cutting back on court time would also save courts and plaintiffs thousands of dollars in fees and make the process far less confrontational.

This is not the first time that the issue of no-fault divorce has been raised in New York, but there appears to be less resistance than in the past. Although New York has a reputation of being one of the most progressive states in the Union, Republicans hold a majority in the state Senate, representing upstate constituents far more conservative than their counterparts in New York City. But even while a number of conservative groups would like to see more barriers to divorce, not fewer, the campaign for no-fault divorce is gaining momentum. The Women's Bar Association voted to reverse its opposition in 2004, a vestige of its more conservative days, and even some Republican lawmakers, the Times reports, are pushing for incremental changes.

New York Gov. George Pataki must now review the commission's findings, and then decide whether he wants to move forward. One hopes New York will soon allow couples the freedom to part ways without a lot of emotional and financial hassle.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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