New Years Dissolution: Divorce. Is there a post-holiday divorce phenomenon?

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The post-holiday divorce phenomenon from the perspective of a traditional litigation attorney, a divorce mediation attorney and a child psychologist. How the holidays cause a rise in divorce initiations.

Long time practitioners in the counseling and legal professions believe that the stress of the holidays causes so much domestic friction that by the time the new year is upon us, many couples have decided to separate and divorce.

“They begin the New Year by initiating a divorce. It’s part of the New Year’s resolution process,” said attorney Keila Gilbert, president of the Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation. “Many postpone it to get through one last holiday for the children.”    Others try to stay together through the holidays for the tax benefits of living together through one more year.

Tina Mazaheri, a divorce and criminal attorney in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has also noticed the increase in divorce calls in January. She observes that the holidays are a time people reflect on their personal situation “and get the courage to make a change.”    

The holidays can be an introspective time for all of us verified by the peak in sales of self-help books early in the new year. But for couples already experiencing marital difficulties, the season can be a minefield of problems that range from finances to in-laws.

Some couples overextend their budgets and their emotions. Even in the best of marriages, those without a financial safety net or who are fearful about their employment situation in the coming year may have disagreements over how much to spend on gifts and for whom.

A couple already familiar with marital discord may pin their hopes on the promise of happy holiday get-togethers or the expectation of “perfect” gift to heal their marriages may be sadly disappointed. Committing to light stringing, hosting, baking, shopping and decorating can result in frazzled nerves and short tempers long before the guests start arriving.     

Work schedules can also cause tension. Holidays for shift workers, who already suffer divorce rates three to six times higher than average, are becoming rarer as many production facilities operate on a 24/7 schedule. Formerly blue-collar workers, today’s shift workers include professionals in supervisory, retail or computer operations and foreign investment bankers. For some in health care or utility and transportation workers, Christmas Day is just another workday. Retail workers, mortgage processors, and mail carriers are among those whose schedules and workloads get heavier at the end of the year and translate into less time to spend with the family.

For “blended” families, where one or both parents have children from previous relationships, scheduling conflicts may arise due to custody agreements that have children spending their holidays elsewhere this year. The picture perfect holiday family portrait is often missing someone and this can lead to additional frustration.

Even being home can cause stress in the relationship. When the children are home for 10 days in a home already overcrowded with relatives, gifts and high expectations, a spouse may feel that they have no privacy, “stuck” in the house with few outdoor activities.

Couples who make the call to an attorney this January to initiate divorce proceedings in Pennsylvania can expect to begin a process that lasts from several months to several years. In a recently publicized case where a Bucks County couple is in litigation over a $43,000 estate, one of the couple’s lawyers expressed fear that the estate would be eaten up in legal fees because the months are ticking by. Attorney Tina Mazaheri, when asked if that situation is an exaggeration of the traditional court divorce process, replied, “No, I don’t think so, but the court system is not the cause. The court has a two-tier system to decide property issues.”

The first way is to have the lawyers work through the Family Court’s Masters office where agreements can be arbitrated by the lawyers representing each spouse. Couples unable to come to agreement on alimony, support and distribution of property allow the Masters Office’s arbitrators to review their situation and decide for them.

The other way is by a hearing in front of a judge who dictates a settlement for them.

Ms. Mazaheri says that 90% of her traditional divorces are through Masters. Couples can utilize the Master’s Office if both parties consent to divorce or by waiting a two-year period of separation or on proven fault grounds. “Divorces that are delayed are because one party isn’t agreeing or financial information isn’t being exchanged.” She added, “A diligent attorney can resolve these issues quickly.”    

But R.K.’s divorce through the Bucks County Master’s Office took more than four years. First, he had to wait the mandatory two years because his wife would not consent to divorce; then the two lawyers went back and forth on custody and financial settlements. A court-appointed counselor interviewed parents and children and then made a recommendation on custody of their children. After a hearing, a judge issued custody orders. And after 1-1/2 years of bickering between the lawyers, financial analysts and professionals they each hired, their financial agreement was decided by the Master’s office. The divorce was final in 1999. “It cost me $22,000,” R.K. said, “but my ex-wife’s legal bill was even higher than that.”

Many divorcing couples in the Philadelphia area have discovered a more economical way to end their marriages by using one of the Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation’s six offices in suburban Philadelphia. Mediation works for couples who can set aside those emotional issues that led to the decision to divorce in order to make reasonable joint decisions about their children’s custody and property for themselves.

Attorney mediators act as a neutral intermediary between conflicting parties to promote settlements. Mediators do not make decisions for the couple; couples come to their own mutually agreed upon settlements using the services of a psychologist, an accountant and an attorney and other financial professionals depending on the complexity of their assets and custody issues.

Those who have used mediation found it also reduces the pain of divorce for their children. Alpha psychologist Dr. Eileen Klitsch has observed that children whose parents rationally come to agreements that establish where children live, go to school and spend their weekends, feel less anxiety and more stability. “Mediation helps reduce the long term effects of divorce on children” she added.

The most important side benefit to mediation, says Keila Gilbert, is that “most of our clients are on such a positive path to find ways to agree with their spouses to expedite their divorce agreements that they take those skills with them. They use that process to come to decisions on issues that might arise post-divorce regarding holiday schedules and things like braces or college.” The result is that both parties are able to focus on restructuring their lives for their own future as well as their children’s future in a more positive way.         

NEWS / FEATURE ADVISORY by Mary J. Kremser, Doylestown, PA 215-348-2817

Professionals quoted in the article:

Keila M. Gilbert, Esquire 215-348-8586

Tina Mazaheri, Esquire 215-345-6400

Dr. Eileen Klitsch 215-860-5533

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