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No-Fault Divorce: Feminists Clash

Breaking up is hard to do, especially in New York. New York is the only state in the nation that does not allow for no-fault divorce, i.e., divorce without “grounds” such as adultery or abandonment. While proposals to change that are floating in Albany, a sharp disagreement between two influential women’s groups prevented anything from happening this year.

Chief Judge Judith Kaye hoped to move toward no-fault divorce in New York by appointing a Matrimonial Commission that issued a report in February calling for an overhaul of the Domestic Relations Law and providing for no-fault divorce. Gotham Gazette’s Law columnist, Justice Emily Jane Goodman, outlined the recommendations in March. The legislature adjourned without taking any action this year.

Inside Albany reported, “The chairs of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committees, Senator John DeFrancisco (R-Onondaga County) and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) each endorse ‘no-fault’ divorce. Weinstein says the current system encourages a spouse falsely to allege blame to expedite a divorce proceeding.”

Dennis Poust, communications director of the New York State Catholic Conference, representing the state’s Roman Catholic bishops in Albany, takes the position that “it shouldn’t be easier to get out of a marriage than a car lease.” He notes that no-fault is already available if the couple waits for one year.

Opposition from the Catholic hierarchy to no-fault is expected, but they have been joined in resistance to this change by the National Organization for Women, the state’s leading feminist group. Noreen Connell, a past president of the state chapter, said, “I see it not as no-fault but as divorce on demand--unilateral divorce.” She believes that the push for no-fault is coming from wealthy husbands who want to dump wives who are less able to afford the costs of lawyers.

“Judges--both women and men--are career people who have no respect for housewives,” said Connell, who calls herself a “feminist with two cats." “There has to be some protection for people who made the sacrifice and stayed home with the kids.” She also worries about legislators, “most of whom are lawyers and many of whom are divorced” not being sympathetic enough to non-moneyed spouses.

The move to no-fault is supported by the Women’s Bar Association, which had been historically opposed to the change, but is now backing it up with its 3500 members. Elaine Avery, the president of the group, wrote that under no-fault, a woman who was a victim of domestic violence “would no longer be forced to waste time, money and emotional energy on proving who did what in the breakup of the marriage. Instead, they would be free to focus on what really matters--the custody of their children, child support, and the fair and equitable division of the parties’ financial affairs.”

While the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women opposes no-fault, Avery said that the Pennsylvania chapter is in support.

Alton L. Abramowitz, a matrimonial lawyer who chairs the Committee on Matrimonial Law at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York which supports the change to no-fault, said that because of the state’s budgetary process, “a lot of major issues get lost in Albany.” He said that as a safeguard in this process, they support “provisions requiring all issues involving equitable distribution and child custody be resolved before the judgment of divorce.” He is working with Assemblymember Weinstein on another provision that “the non-moneyed spouse be entitled to legal costs paid by the spouse with money.”

Part of the bar association’s desire for change stems from the fact that “we are expending an extraordinary amount of judicial resources on contested divorce.” The association’s case for changing the law is online.

The political delicacy of this issue was demonstrated by the fact that most major candidates for office in New York State are avoiding comment. Requests for comment were not returned by the campaigns of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Eliot Spitzer nor those running for attorney general--Democrat Andrew Cuomo who went through a messy divorce himself several years ago and Republican Jeanine Pirro whose marital woes of late seem to have set back her bid.

Susan Del Percio, a spokesperson for Republican gubernatorial candidate John Faso, said, “The state should find a way to implement some type of no-fault system, especially when both spouses want a divorce providing that the system has proper protections for financial and custody issues.”

Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, a senior Democratic leader, acknowledged, “I haven’t looked at it closely,” but promised that he would not support “something that disadvantages women economically in divorce,” since women are more often the non-moneyed spouse.

Connell is worried that while the legislature did not act on the Kaye commission’s proposals for change this year when all legislators are up for re-election, “a lot of dirty work gets done in non-election years.” Back in February, the New York Sun reported that Assemblymember Weinstein would not move forward unless “provisions were put in place to protect victims of domestic violence and the economic interest of non-working spouses.” But she did not return calls about the prospects for change in 2007.

Senator DeFrancisco reportedly said he is supporting a proposal that would allow a divorce to go through in 30 days if a couple has resolved all of its economic and custody issues.

Lillian Kozack, the chair of the Domestic Relations Task Force at the National Organization for Women said, “Helene feels her bill will offer no-fault with protection. We don’t buy that.” Kozack is calling on the legislature to pass the protections first and see how they work before enacting no-fault divorce.

With feminists divided on the issue, this could be one of the more divisive social issue debates in the New York State legislature next year.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

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