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For Some Couples, Economic Indicators Say Split

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For Some Couples, Economic Indicators Say Split

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For Some Couples, Economic Indicators Say Split

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're reporting this morning on one of the bitter ironies of the economy. It's a reminder that marriage is a union of finances as well as love.

INSKEEP: During the worst of the recession we heard that the divorce rate was dropping. Now it's rising as the economy comes back.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Divorce is expensive, so when the economy tanked, a lot of unhappy couples decided it just wasn't the time to split. Some held off when they couldn't sell their home. Federal figures suggest the divorce rate fell about seven percent between 2006 and 2009, and divorce lawyers across the country saw business dry up. But that's changing.

Mr. SANDY AIN (Attorney): I would say that over the last six months the activity in our firm has probably picked up by 20, 25 percent.

LUDDEN: In fact, Washington, D.C. lawyer Sandy Ain is getting so many calls, he can't handle them all. He sees several reasons for the uptick.

Mr. AIN: One is the credit markets are actually loosening up. Banks are starting to lend money again.

LUDDEN: That means someone can borrow money to buy out a spouse - say, to pay for one's share of the house, or - as is common for business owners - to give a spouse his or her legal share in the family enterprise.

The other big change: the stock market's nearly doubled from its darkest days. When retirement funds and savings accounts are fatter, people feel more secure striking out on separate lives.

Finally, there is simply pent-up demand.

Ms. LEA VIKEN (President, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers): When a person is ready to have a divorce, they generally don't like it to take two or three or four years to get finished.

LUDDEN: Linda Lea Viken heads the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Ms. VIKEN: So I think there's a part of the population who just doesn't want to wait anymore.

LUDDEN: Still, crude as it seems, the business cycle can play a crucial role in a divorce settlement. Some lawyers have been advising clients to put off separation during the down economy. Viken says whether now is the right time depends.

Ms. VIKEN: If a person receives a business, for example, and another person receives a house, the value of those two assets is extremely important in determining what else happens.

LUDDEN: That's because the aim is often a 50-50 split of assets. So if, say, a man receives a business that's been hit hard during the recession and is valued low, he'll likely get to keep more of the couple's other assets. And that property settlement is final - no re-doing it once the economy rebounds and that business or house is worth a lot more.

Viken says there's something else to consider. It used to be that if your ex-spouse took over a joint credit card or mortgage, the bank or lender would take your name off the contract. But since the recession, no more.

Ms. VIKEN: Because they want to be assured that they have two people they can go after for these debts. So if the other person defaults on it, you may not even know that - and yet your credit's going to be affected, and eventually you're going to get that phone call about this huge debt that hasn't been paid.

LUDDEN: Overall, divorce has been on the decline in recent years. And Brad Wilcox, of the National Marriage Project, says a lot of couples report the recession actually strengthened their union. Still, money woes are notoriously tough on marriages, and Wilcox says the recession has hit lower-income Americans hardest.

MR. BRADY WILCOX (Director, National Marriage Project): Clearly, my view is that as we move forward here, we're going to see the long arm of the recession kind of reaching out and grabbing working-class and poor couples a lot more than college-educated and more affluent couples.

In a survey out this week, Wilcox finds those without a college degree are twice as likely to say they are thinking of divorce.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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