As the coronavirus descended on New York last year, some Long Island matrimonial attorneys speculated there would be a boom in divorces because so many couples would be stuck together at home during lockdown. Existing relationship tensions would be intensified with all that time together and no escape.
But divorce rates on Long Island defied those expectations in the first year of the pandemic and related restrictions, according to state court data obtained by Newsday.
Divorce filings and dispositions in Long Island courts fell 31.6% between late March 2020 and late March 2021, compared with the same period a year earlier, the data shows.
What to know
Divorce filings and dispositions in Long Island courts fell 31.6% between late March 2020 and late March 2021.
Experts attributed the drop to limited court operations during the pandemic, difficulty finding housing to move into and unprecedented job losses.
Long Island divorce filings have ticked back up so far in 2021 — about 9% above 2019 levels.
Divorce filings dropped 25% in Nassau and 13% in Suffolk during that time, data shows.
Dispositions, or finalizations of cases, had an even sharper decline, with a 37.4% drop in Nassau and 46.3% in Suffolk.
Attorneys and researchers attributed the divorce-rate drop to limited court operations at points during the pandemic and related backlogs, as well as new obstacles to getting divorced, such as trouble finding housing to move into and unprecedented job losses, which meant some couples could not afford the divorce process.
But the decline doesn’t necessarily mean there are fewer people who want to get divorced or are having relationship troubles, officials said.
"I don't think the numbers reflect what's really going on," said attorney Jawan Finley, who leads the matrimonial division at Queens-based law firm Mallilo & Grossman and handles divorce cases in Long Island and New York City.
"There's a lot of people that want to get divorced, but just between the finances and the time, [it] discourages people."
Long Island divorce filings have ticked back up so far in 2021 — about 9% above 2019 levels, according to the state court data — which experts said could be a sign of pent-up demand as more normal court operations have resumed. Several Long Island divorce attorneys and a family and relationship counselor said business has picked up in the last few months.
"You can definitely see it," attorney Marc Stein, a partner at Huntington Station-based The Law Offices of Michael J. Alber P.C., said of the uptick in 2021. " … The floodgate has opened up wide."
Expectations of more divorces
When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered nonessential workers to stay home in March 2020, several divorce attorneys and experts said, they expected divorce rates to spike.
"When you’re in an unhappy marriage, you have outside activities that fill the holes," said Garden City-based matrimonial attorney Kim Ciesinski, who runs Alternative Divorce Solutions, a firm that focuses on collaborative divorce and mediation.
'When you’re in an unhappy marriage, you have outside activities that fill the holes. When all of that is taken away ... you come to the realization that this relationship is dead.”Garden City-based matrimonial attorney Kim Ciesinski
"When all of that is taken away from you and you only have the marriage, after a year or so, you come to the realization that this relationship is dead."
Stony Brook University economics Professor Steven Stern, who has created models on factors leading to marriage and divorce, said his research shows people are more likely to get divorced when things take a turn for the worse or there are surprises in the marriage.
But assumptions of a spike on Long Island did not immediately come to fruition, data shows.
Divorce filings fell by 26.6% on Long Island in 2020 from 2019 levels, according to data and experts. Statewide, filings fell 23.6% in 2020. New York City saw a 29.6% drop.
Those drops are not unique. Four of five states studied also saw divorce shortfalls in 2020, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
The major reason for such declines: reduced court operations because of health and safety concerns, officials said.
Courts limited operations
The first wave of COVID-19 prompted Nassau and Suffolk Supreme Court matrimonial parts to limit all new divorce filings, except for essential matters, from March 16 to May 25, officials said.
Those matters included major custody disputes, such as arguments over which parent should get child custody during the lockdown, and financial problems, such as exes who would soon have their electricity turned off if they did not receive child support payments immediately, said Jeffrey Goodstein, Nassau supervising judge for the matrimonial part.
"The courthouse never closed," Suffolk District Administrative Judge Andrew Crecca said. "We definitely consolidated and reduced operations during peak periods of the pandemic, but we never turned people away."
But fewer people could file for divorce because they were not considered emergency cases, officials said. Long Island divorce court filings dropped 81.6%, from 445 to 82, from one court term — Feb. 24 to March 22 — to the next term ending April 19, data shows.
Cases were not heard or put on the calendar between March 17 and April 13, Crecca said. Some in-person operations resumed at the end of May 2020 and expanded in the following months, only to be curtailed again from November to February because of a second wave of the disease.
Changes in operations led to backlogs, officials said. Nassau matrimonial court has a backlog of about 45 days between filing for an uncontested divorce and a judge's review, and Suffolk’s is about four and a half months, Goodstein and Crecca said.
Stephanie Brudner Nocerino, a Nesconset mother of two and school administrator, said her divorce has been significantly delayed. She filed for divorce in March 2019. Her trial was supposed to begin in Suffolk Supreme Court in late March 2020 but was pushed back until July. Even though a judge issued a written decision in February 2021, the divorce still isn’t finalized, which she said delays enforcement on related payments.
"You're living a life of not knowing when your life is going to change," Brudner Nocerino, 47, said, calling the limbo "mentally exhausting."
There were also new difficulties to getting divorced in the pandemic, experts said. People who wanted to separate could not move out of shared homes because of job losses and rising home prices. Others struggled to find a place as in-person real estate showings were restricted.
Some might have had trouble reaching attorneys, who were working from home, or did not have enough privacy to consult one.
'We would be doing telephone consultations where they'd be whispering in the other room or cutting the consultation short because the spouse would be coming home.'Matrimonial attorney Jeffrey Catterson, of Garden City-based SCL Law Group
"We would be doing telephone consultations where they'd be whispering in the other room or cutting the consultation short because the spouse would be coming home," said matrimonial attorney Jeffrey Catterson, of Garden City-based SCL Law Group.
The filing numbers don’t account for all the married couples who have decided to end their relationships, experts said. Divorce attorneys said they have an increasing number of clients seek mediation because it is typically faster and less expensive than litigation. Those clients do not enter the court system until they reach an agreement — which could take months — and file for an uncontested divorce.
And it is taking longer to reach agreements as virus safety concerns limited opposing parties from gathering in a room to hash out their problems, experts said.
The economy has also delayed agreements, experts said. Businesses’ values are more difficult to determine with so much uncertainty. Some people are reluctant to commit to payments if their incomes are in flux or if they would have to financially support exes who recently lost jobs.
People also likely couldn't afford to divorce during a time of high unemployment, experts said. The average cost of divorce in New York state ranges from $5,000 for uncontested divorces to $27,000 for cases that go to trial with several disputes, according to legal research firm Martindale-Nolo Research.
People are "really struggling" because they have a reason to end their relationship and "it really affects their emotional security, their personal identity, everything about their life," said Marc Fernandez, a therapist who oversees the Family & Children’s Association’s Family First therapy program. "And at the same time, they can't get out because they have to pay bills, they have to take care of their children."
Fernandez said economic troubles in the pandemic may have been "the straw that broke the camel’s back" in some already tumultuous relationships.
But experts were mixed on whether the pandemic played a role in their clients’ relationships ending. Catterson said many of his clients’ marriages broke down over similar factors from normal times. Attorney Jawan Finley, president of the Macon B. Allen Black Bar Association in Queens, said the pandemic inspired people to "rethink their quality of life and their happiness" and pursue divorce if they were not happy.
The pandemic may have helped some people stay together, said Wendy Manning, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research. Lockdown likely served as a barrier to infidelity, which is a major reason for divorce, and some couples may have realized "what's important in life and maybe let go" of their other issues.
Other couples made it through the lockdown because they knew they had no other choice, but once things started opening back up, they knew they wanted out, Stein said.
That, along with expanded court operations, is why filings were up 64.2% on Long Island as of April 25 of this year, compared with the same time in 2020, according to experts and data. But that comparison includes a time period in 2020 when few filings were allowed.
Statewide, filings were up 2.7% as of March 28, while New York City's filings were down 10%, data shows.
Kim Ciesinski said she doesn’t believe the "full consequences" of the pandemic on relationships has "played out yet."
"I think it’s going to take years to look back and say, ‘Oh wow, this was the result of the year and a half of the pandemic,'" she said.