New York may be a leader in many things, but matrimonial law is not one of them. Such was the general consensus of speakers at a New York State Senate hearing which focused mainly on divorce. The Senate expects to bring the bill out of committee on Monday.
Speakers including lawyers, divorcees, judges and professors urged the Senate to pass legislation that would allow for no-fault divorce. Current law requires spouses to give the court a reason for the dissolution of their marriage, while a no-fault divorce law would not. New York is the only state that lacks no-fault divorce. This fact was repeated throughout the day-long hearing in Albany.
In New York State, in order to obtain a divorce one spouse must prove that he or she was the victim of cruel and inhuman treatment, abandonment or adultery. One may also obtain a divorce if his or her spouse is sent to prison for three or more years, as long as the motion is filed within five years of the spouse’s release.
According to Alison Greene, general counsel to Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Mt. Vernon), one of the senators who hosted the hearing, New York’s law is a throwback to the days when it was assumed that divorces were filed by men who abandoned their unskilled wives and kids without providing for them. Legislators wanted to protect women who today, make up the a large portion of divorce plaintiffs in the state. According to female speakers at the hearing, current divorce law is not in the best interest of most women.
Julie, an Albany area woman who testified and who did not want to give her last name for privacy reasons, said that she spent seven years trying to prove that she deserved a divorce. She said that her husband was verbally abusive to her, but since he did not leave marks, she couldn’t prove it to the judge’s satisfaction.
“I found myself at times wishing he had physically abused me — something that you could document with a photo, only because it would have been a little easier to prove.” Julie said her ex-husband filled an appeal to their divorce in April, asking to have it overturned. “There seems to be no end or limit to the amount of legal wrangling the state will allow,” she said.
Proving grounds for divorce takes time and ties up the court system, making the waiting period to hear such cases excessive. Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman, said at the hearing that the typical middle class contested matrimonial action “can take well over a year or more … No small part of this is attributable to New York’s antiquated fault-based divorce system,” Scheinkman added.
Still, not everyone is in favor of allowing no-fault divorce. The National Organization for Women New York State and the New York State Catholic Conference both submitted testimony against enacting a no-fault law, but for different reasons.
The NYSCC is against no-fault divorce because it “opposes all measures that further break down the institution of marriage.”
“A divorce would be granted even if one spouse wanted to remain married,” read testimony by Kyle McCauley Belokopitsky, director of government relations for the NYSCC.
“No fault divorce would send the message that marriage is temporary and trivial, and can easily be breached,” he wrote. The NYSCC cited a 2002 survey in which nearly two-thirds of adults who said they were unhappy in their marriage but remained in it reported in a follow-up study five years later that they were happy.
“It is ironic that some look at New York’s divorce rates, which are lower than the national average and see a problem to be remedied,” Belokopitsky wrote.
NOW NYS opposes no-fault divorce because it “takes away any bargaining power the non-monied spouse has. Currently, she can say, ‘If you want a divorce, I’ll agree but you have to work out a fair agreement,’” read testimony given by NOW NYS President, Marcia Pappas.
In addition, the organization contends that one spouse should be provided with notice that the other wants a divorce and given an opportunity to negotiate.
In response to speakers who cited domestic violence situations as ones in which no-fault divorce would be useful, NOW NY stated that judges refusing to grant women divorces in these cases need to be reformed, rather than the state’s divorce law.
However Grace Yoon, executive director of the Korean American Family Service Center in Flushing works with victims of domestic violence and disagrees.
“I found that states that adopt no-fault divorce have a decline in domestic violence, Yoon said. “I think it’s a good thing that it would be easier for the victims to leave.”
Still, Yoon said she is concerned about the impact such a law might have on the immigrant community that she works with. “I think we should consider situations where women may be in the country and reliant upon their husband’s immigration status to remain here legally. There should be special provisions made so that in cases like these they are not simply deported when they are divorced.” Yoon said she was also concerned that immigrant victims of domestic violence who divorced under a no-fault law might not be allowed to stay in the country using protections afforded under the Violence Against Women Act which includes the ability to petition for a green card.
Phyills Vohrer, who obtained her divorce 30 years ago and runs a divorce support group at the Samuel Field Y in Little Neck, said she is in favor of no-fault legislation. “Anything that makes it easier to get a divorce should be done,” she said. “If someone’s not happy with someone they should be able to get divorced. Even if it’s a man, I am a feminist, but people should have the right to choice.