ALBANY - The Legislature last night took steps toward making it easier to end a marriage in New York, with the State Assembly passing a measure leaders said paved the way for a final vote on no-fault divorce.
The Assembly's bill sets a formula for the distribution of alimony, known in the law as maintenance, a move opposed by attorneys but that advocates for women say could protect poorer women from spouses who abuse or abandon them. Assembly leaders said they would not consider no-fault divorce without first changing alimony.
The Senate passed a no-fault divorce bill two weeks ago, along with its own alimony measure and a separate provision for attorney fees for the poorer spouse. Last night, it approved changes to its bill that includes distribution of alimony provisions adopted by the Assembly.
"You can't do no-fault without also addressing maintenance," said Assemb. Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn), chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee and a powerful voice on the issue.
Last night's vote "lays the groundwork for us to do something" on no-fault divorce Thursday, she said.
New York is the only state without no-fault divorce. Under current law, New Yorkers must both agree to a one-year separation before divorcing, or accuse each other of adultery, abandonment or cruelty. The Senate no-fault provision would allow marriages to dissolve if one spouse says it's "irretrievably broken."
Last night's votes came after Speaker Sheldon Silver signaled for the first time that Assembly Democrats would support no-fault divorce. Its prospects in the Assembly had been complicated by Weinstein and others' desire to put the divorce law changes into one comprehensive reform bill - forcing Gov. David A. Paterson to sign it or veto it as a whole. But the Senate had already decided to divide the changes into different bills.
Silver said no-fault would be approved if the Assembly had a "commitment" from Paterson and the Senate. The Assembly has already passed a lawyer fee bill.
"We'd do the one bill, but if there was a commitment to doing all of the bills that are contained in it, we would do it," Silver said. "It's very similar to what the Senate did."
Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said the governor would make a final decision after reviewing the bills.
Opponents of no-fault said they still held out hope that the Senate, Assembly and governor won't be able to agree.
"We're just trying to run out the clock," said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference.