A common question that I get from colleagues that do not practice Family Law and lay people alike is whether the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic effect on the number of spouses filing for divorce. There has been a profligacy of newspaper articles on this issue leading to these questions with titles ranging from “Why Divorces Could Spike After COVID-19”, “Broken marriages becoming pandemic's other toll” and the amusing “First Comes the Pandemic Divorce, Then the ‘Tits Out’ Summer” via Vanity Fair. The popular thought is that for spouses whose marriages were already on the rocks, the advent of the pandemic and initial periods of lock-down – forcing the spouses to spend an enormous amount of time together without a break – must have hastened the end of the marriages. But is this true?
I have struggled to answer that question due to a number of factors. Are we busy due to the number of new divorces or because the court system has slowed to an extraordinary pace due to closure, restrictions, and postponements? Are there more new divorces being filed, or have child custody and support issues in existing cases that have been exacerbated by the unique effects of the pandemic caused this change?
When I went to see if any research had been performed on this issue, I learned, surprisingly, that the data so far points to divorce rates going down, not up, since the pandemic started. Researchers at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University reviewed data from five states (Arizona, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Oregon) that report monthly data and found that there was a shortfall of between 21.6 percent (in Missouri) to 36.4 percent (in New Hampshire), amounting to approximately 16,000 fewer divorces over the period than the number expected. If the data in these states is indicative of a national trend, then there may have been more that 190,000 fewer divorces in 2020 versus 2019. This is a significant number and may have an outsized effect on our profession if these statistics hold true for Louisiana.
Interestingly, the number of marriages also dropped precipitously during the pandemic period by a factor of 20%. The causation for this may be self-explanatory, as I know many couples that were forced to postpone marriage ceremonies due to COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. However, it will be interesting to see if this number completely rebounds in the next year or if this will be a continuing trend.
The statistics may point to less divorces, but the dockets in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany do not agree. From recent filings in all three jurisdictions, my partners and I have been getting dates three to four months in advance for the setting of simple rules. If new divorces rebound through the rest of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, we could expect a further clogging of the dockets. The reality may be that we have less new divorces, but more work to do. Is the new normal? Only time will tell.
For further reading, the Bowling Green State University study can be found at the following link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/23780231211006976
Hoffman Nguyen Kuehl Family Law