Attorneys, Mediators Reveal Increasing Interest in Divorce

Although data is difficult to obtain, middlemen and family law attorneys say they are seeing an increase in the number of people interested in divorce.

“For a year or so, I’ve definitely seen an increase in divorce in my practice,” said Erik Wheeler, of Burlington -based Accord Mediation.

Wheeler is one of many mediators who can be found through the Vermont High Court Family Mediation Program.

“Most people look for me because they’ve heard about mediation, that it’s more peaceful, or they want to avoid attorney,” he said. “Often, that’s one of the first things they tell.”

He says the outbreak may be the cause, though the exact role is difficult to explain.

“I think it’s a few things,” he said. “I think the cause is pandemic pressure, and the other impression is because of the court system. The court suspended everything for several months.”

Governor Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in March 2020, resulting in the closure or long -distance operation of public and private services. Among the government operations involved are the courts, which hear only the most serious and urgent cases.

Wheeler said some people openly cited the outbreak as sparking their interest in divorce research, though some said it was a factor. One woman told him that she had not been with her partner for a long time, but had postponed the divorce until the outbreak left her free time to consider it.

“Another case was someone who – it was a difficult situation, she lived with her husband – she became aggressive, and was quarantined with no intention of being a trigger,” Wheeler said.

According to a January report from the New York Times, national data on divorce rates is not yet available, but middlemen, attorneys and others involved in the divorce process reported seeing a large increase in divorce activity about three months after the outbreak. This has been observed in other countries as well, such as the UK, Sweden and China, the Times said.

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Nanci Smith, a Williston-based family law attorney, says she reads various media reports with conflicting views on the matter, but the practice itself has increased by 7% in recent months.

“There are a lot of questions and improvements, people are more curious what their options are,” he said. “Whether they actually propose it or not is debated. I think a number of people can come forward and apply, but a lot of times no one can. If you lack the resources to get out, a pandemic is a very scary time.”

This year, Smith and Wheeler began holding monthly webinars on how to divorce amicably without going to court. Smith said that while the courts did not hold a trial like they did before the outbreak, this option is more attractive for those who want to separate.

Misconceptions and cultural attitudes cause many people to approach divorce the wrong way, he said.

“Just because you have to get out of your relationship doesn’t mean you have to get involved in an earth -burning policy, you can choose to break up in a dignified and healthy way that preserves what’s good in your relationship,” he said.

None of her clients cited the outbreak specifically as a reason they wanted to leave their partner, Smith said, though the situation posed by the virus seemed to bring the underlying problem to the surface.

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“In my experience, people have been thinking about their divorce for at least a year before they have the courage to tell their partner,” Smith said.

In Vermont, it appears that interest in divorce has declined in the months after March 2020, said Rutland attorney Tristan Larson, of Larson and Gallivan Law, PLC.

Larson also runs Vermont Family Law, which specializes in providing family law advice to people who represent themselves.

“Since then, I’ve been very busy,” he said. “We get a lot of phone calls, and I represent more people than I’ve ever experienced in a divorce.”

In normal years, February and March are “divorce seasons,” Larson said. Couples will often decide to break up after the holidays, this can be a stressful time and when many people decide they want to end their relationship rather than repeat it again.

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Larson says he could see his website’s web traffic halve in March 2020, but start to increase again in June.

“July 2020, I had the busiest month Vermont Family Law has ever had, that was a big leap,” he said.

Interest in divorce has grown exponentially since the first summer of the outbreak, he said, but how many will follow up and file for it remains unclear, given the pile of litigation.

He says that while he advises people not to use a attorney for divorce, they can’t let arrears stop them if they want to file. Filming has been waiting for them to be seen, and much more is being done with distant audiences now, something he hopes will continue for short and medium audiences.

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“A good divorce is better than a bad marriage, for the kids,” he said. “A bad divorce is worse.”

How much of this increase stems from people being pressured to separate because of the epidemic and how many of these people want divorce and procrastination remains unclear.

“Since March 2020, I haven’t seen an increase in activity to date,” said Rutland attorney Kevin Volz. “I think a lot of people might wake up with their incomes cut. The flood gates have opened lately and I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries and followers. Will this be more general or just some latent demand? What I don’t know yet.”

Like others, her clients didn’t directly tell her that the outbreak led to their decision to divorce, but some said that having to spend a lot of time indoors with someone they were considering breaking up with had raised their timeline.

Volz noted in an email that the courts were working to digitize and do more work online when the outbreak hit, adding to the stagnation and uncertainty that ensued.

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“At first, people didn’t know how long he would be detained, the court just adjourned the case, probably thinking in a few months it would start to be scheduled again,” he said.

Despite the delay, the court adjusted it precisely, according to Volz.

“The staff of this court have been heroes who have never been known all along,” he said. “I can’t imagine the pressure they went through. Still, I’ve never heard a bad word. And their patience isn’t limited in helping attorneys learn to operate the new online remote hearing / filing system.” ***

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