New York divorce reform proves costly for affluent couples

After many years of trying without success to change the way divorces are conducted in New York, legislators passed a law in 2010 giving New Yorkers long-awaited access to no-fault divorce. But although this change has received widespread support from families and legal experts, one aspect of the reform has drawn criticism for its unintended impact on some higher-income spouses who divorce in the state.

What is no-fault divorce?

Just as the name implies, no fault divorce is a type of divorce that occurs without the need to assign blame to either spouse. In the past, a person seeking divorce in New York was required to prove that the divorce was justified by some fault on the part of his or her spouse, such as abuse or adultery.

In New York and other states that have laws permitting no-fault divorce, laying blame for the deterioration of the marriage is not required to obtain a divorce. Instead, couples seeking divorce need only provide a reason that is considered acceptable grounds for divorce under state law; in New York, for instance, a couple may be granted a divorce on the grounds that their marriage is "irretrievably broken." Put another way, this simply means that the marriage is not working out, regardless of the specific reasons.

Few people object to the state's adoption of no-fault divorce, which permits New Yorkers to end an unsuccessful marriage without doing further harm to one another by assigning blame. In this way, the new law has helped many divorcing couples to achieve closure more quickly and amicably than would have been possible in the past.

Unintended costs of alimony reform

Another aspect of the new law, however, has proven more troublesome for some New York couples. Along with establishing no-fault divorce, the reform also included a provision that set a strict formula for awarding temporary alimony during a New York divorce.

The alimony formula was intended to improve consistency among cases and ensure fair treatment of low-income individuals who could not afford legal representation when divorcing a wealthier spouse. Because New York judges were previously allowed broad discretion in awarding alimony, poorer spouses who could not afford attorneys - often women - were thought to be at a disadvantage under the old law.

Despite the legislators' good intentions, however, the alimony statute has created unexpected obstacles for certain wealthier New Yorkers. For some such couples, the Wall Street Journal reported recently, the new law has overcorrected for income disparities between the spouses, causing the previously more affluent spouse to become the poorer spouse, in some cases by a wide margin.

Contact an attorney

Negotiating a divorce settlement agreement involves a complicated analysis of many different factors, particularly when there are substantial assets to be accounted for. People considering divorce in New York are advised to speak with a knowledgeable divorce and property division attorney to discuss their options for securing an optimal settlement.

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