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When it comes to one of America’s least-favorite institutions, Westchester fares better than most. But things have changed recently in both the law and the courts, hopefully making this notoriously bitter pill somewhat easier to swallow.
Gore Vidal once said it’s always best to stay out of other people’s divorces. Good advice, but this article is going in a different direction. Westchester County is commonly described as a bunch of bedroom communities; it stands to reason, then, that what happens in marital bedrooms relates to the overall happiness of the population. So, is this a happily married county?
HOLLYWOOD LIKES TO SUGGEST THAT THE BURBS ARE RIFE WITH LONGING AND DISCONTENT… but that doesn’t seem to be an accurate portrayal. By the numbers, Westchester is doing just slightly better than New York State and the country as a whole. Eight percent of the county’s population is divorced, compared to New York State’s nine percent and 11 percent nationwide. Looking beyond the statistics, however, divorce attorneys here say that business is quite steady, bouncing back to “normal” after a slowdown when courthouses were closed during the pandemic. What’s changing is a growing focus on kinder, gentler, and even cheaper divorces. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s still no shortage of acrimony in matrimonial law, but here’s what Westchester residents should know about the current state of divorce in the 914.
Nationwide, there were some 630,000 divorces (and 1.67 million marriages) in 2020. By comparison, there were 944,000 divorces in 2000 and 2.3 million marriages, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC). In terms of raw numbers, both institutions have been steadily declining.
Closer to home, scorekeepers might be interested to know that at last measure, Katonah sports the highest divorce rate in the county, at 17% of its population, while Scarsdale reports a blissful 3%. Meanwhile, Rye, Pleasantville, and Larchmont are at 6%, with Bedford and Ossining at 10% and Mount Vernon at 11%. Bedford Hills and Yorktown Heights stand at 12%*.
“Conscious uncoupling” isn’t a legal term, but it has seeped into new thinking about marital breakups (thanks, Gwyneth). So-called amicable divorces save money and are certainly less painful on all participants, especially children. When both parties lawyer up and head to trial, divorces cost on average about $23,000, possibly even more. The simplest, and by far the cheapest, uncontested divorce (meaning those that do not require a judge to allocate the division of assets and property) is the DIY, or do-it-yourself approach.
Last spring, Westchester County launched a program known as the Uncontested Joint Filing Pilot Project, an initiative that provides uncoupling partners with all the forms necessary to complete a divorce, easily accessible on NYCourts.gov. Filling them out properly might not be so easy, however. For those who need assistance, the same website also provides information on where residents can get free or low-cost legal aid. “This method works for marriages of fairly short duration, where the couple has no children and not a lot by way of assets or liabilities,” says Jim Nolletti of the Nolletti Law Group PLLC in White Plains.
In collaborative divorce, the couple and their respective lawyers work together to resolve issues such as asset distribution, maintenance (the new term for alimony), and child custody. Financial advisors and mental health professionals may join the collaboration, depending on what conflicts or questions arise. The goal is to privately reach an agreement that can be presented to a judge for approval. The couple doesn’t go to a courthouse; only their paperwork does. This appeals to “ultra-high net-worth cases” of affluent couples who want to oversee how their case is handled and want to “place a premium on privacy and confidentiality,” says attorney Neil E. Kozek, of Kozek PLLC in White Plains. Further, since the couple is basically customizing their own agreement, “the goal is for each person to leave the collaborative negotiation having achieved something, if not many things, very important to each party and the family,” Kozek says. To facilitate accord, lawyers trained in collaborative divorce don’t feed the fire of an acrimonious relationship, he adds. “The divorcing spouses may have created a dysfunctional dynamic of communication that doesn’t work. They need help changing the tenor of the conversation, helping them to speak in a way that doesn’t feel accusatory or blaming,” he says.
Mediation is another path to divorce in which a couple communicates via a neutral mediator to iron out a divorce settlement agreement. The mediator, a trained professional (not necessarily a lawyer), does not offer legal advice to either party, which is why such divorces (typically costing $3,000 to $8,000) are much less expensive, since there are fewer legal fees and lawyer’s hours. But it’s still widely recommended that both spouses hire private attorneys to review their settlement before signing anything.
Saving money and anguish sure sounds like an excellent idea, but how does an uncoupling couple know if an amicable approach will work for them? “The two parties must be operating in good faith, must be on a level playing field, and must have mutual respect for each other,” says White Plains attorney Patricia Kitson of The Kitson Law Firm. “If any of those factors does not exist, then you are unlikely to stay out of court.” The same holds true, of course, if there is history of domestic violence, she says.
In Westchester, divorce actions must start with the filing of a Summons and Complaint at the Clerk’s office of the Westchester County Supreme Court in White Plains. (As of 2010, New Yorkers can pursue a no-fault option, simply claiming that a marriage has “irretrievably broken down.”) Of course, what happens next varies, but the process is controlled by a set of hard-and-fast rules. People hire attorneys to navigate the ins and outs of matrimonial law, but there are some interesting local legal intricacies that it might pay to know.
All New York State laws apply to Westchester County residents. That said, several rules applying specifically to our locality were updated in September of last year. Known as Westchester County Matrimonial Part rules, these procedural directives were designed to help streamline paperwork and court appearances, speeding up the process of getting divorced in Westchester, where the courts are notoriously backlogged. While divorce seekers might not notice a difference, the lawyers they hire should be aware of all legal minutiae. “Attorneys handling cases in Westchester must familiarize themselves with such rules and laws to effectively represent their clients,” Nolletti says.
Westchester residents should also be aware that New York State laws vary from those of our close neighbors, according to Nolletti. In Connecticut, for example, child support is paid until the child is 18 years old versus 21 years old in New York. Distribution of property and the enforcement pre- and postnuptial agreements can vary between the two states as well. Nolletti’s firm consults with a network of Connecticut attorneys and financial advisors when a divorce might involve businesses, residences, and money in both states, he says.
Another New York State rule to keep in mind concerns the cut-off date for the accumulation of marital assets, suggests attorney Patricia Kitson and her associate Joanne Zelko. Translation: What you earn or accrue after filing for divorce basically belongs to you alone — it’s not considered part of the matrimonial pie. (Zelko notes that, similarly, the law applies to debt incurred after filing as well.) Encompassing all forms of income — including wages, bonuses, employee benefits, investments, and stock in companies — this law can translate into significant sums, especially considering that some difficult divorces take years to settle. Even though this rule is potentially a “strategic consideration,” Kitson says, most people are completely unaware of it.
“Before you send a text, email, or voicemail to your spouse, imagine that you’re sitting on the witness stand in court while a judge reads those messages.”
—Jim Nolletti of the Nolletti Law Group
The outcome of a divorce depends on the many particulars of each individual case. It’s a mistake to assume your divorce will be settled the same as your cousin’s or neighbor’s down the street.
Kitson also notes that it’s wise to hire an attorney with experience in a certain geographical area to secure the most advantageous child support agreement. The amount paid in New York is calculated by a specific formula based on percentage of income, but judges have discretion to adjust amounts. “Think about it from a logical point of view,” she says. “The statute applies statewide, but the cost of living in Westchester County is very different in Orange or Sullivan County.” Courts can “deviate from the presumptive caps” and pay more. “You don’t want your client to unknowingly settle for less,” Kitson says. “People need a lawyer who is familiar with what happens in Westchester County,” she says.
Talking to kids about divorce isn’t easy. Lauren Tetenbaum, a Scarsdale-based social worker specializing in women’s issues, says that honesty is the best policy, but “you don’t need to tell all, all the time.” She recommends a “need-to-know” approach, focusing on “children feeling a sense of reassurance.”
“If a parent is moving out, tell children specifics about where and when they will see that parent,” Tetenbaum says. This kind of information can offset the uncertainty kids feel when “what they know of as their family unit is disrupted.” Also, she tells parents to rely on simple, tried-and-true phrases, such as “Mommy and Daddy still love you. Things might look a little different, but we will always be a family.”
Kids need to know that they will be supported and cared for and that this change is not their fault, Tetenbaum says. “This is true for a 2-year-old, a 12-year-old, and even a 17-year-old.” Parents can also keep the conversation flowing by encouraging children to ask questions, she says. And don’t hesitate to seek help through counselors, therapists, and support groups. Thankfully, she adds, there’s “a new and welcome openness” in talking about mental health that is making it easier for people to reach out for much-needed support during this transitional time.
Don’t vent about your spouse to your children, no matter how tempting. Experts agree that it isn’t good for kids, and it might cost you legally as well. “People get angry and hurt, but they need to do everything they can to avoid bad-mouthing a spouse to their children,” says Nolletti. “If the court feels that the parents can’t work together for the children’s best interest, it could affect their parental rights.”
Control yourself in digital communications, as well as in conversation, Nolletti adds. “People text things they might not say to a person’s face,” he says. “I tell clients this: Before you send a text, email, or voicemail to your spouse, imagine that you’re sitting on the witness stand in court while a judge reads those messages.” Visualizing embarrassing or legally damaging scenarios often stops clients from making serious mistakes, Nolletti says.
Don’t: Vent about your spouse to your children • Waste money fighting over things that really don’t matter • Seek legal advice from family and friends
Don’t waste money fighting over things that really don’t matter, says attorney Joseph Marra, who has a practices in Yonkers and Somers. “Courts basically look at divorce like a financial transaction, but emotions sometimes get the better of the divorcing couple. People will spend thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees fighting over a couch,” Marra says, “It’s not smart. They don’t equate the money that it costs to fight versus what they are fighting over.” Clients should try to view each issue as “cooly and dispassionately as possible,” he says.
On the flip side, trying too hard to save money during divorce proceedings might cost you in the long run. Don’t agree to an unfair settlement too quickly, lawyers warn, just to get it over and done. Couples might find themselves back in court or attorneys’ offices years later, trying to renegotiate.
Also, don’t seek legal advice from family and friends, which can lead to unrealistic expectations. The outcome of a divorce depends on the many particulars of each individual case. It’s a mistake to assume your divorce will be settled the same as your cousin’s or neighbor’s down the street.
What about the dogs? Or in Westchester, maybe the horses? Couples can sign what’s known as a “pet-nup” to decide custody of companion animals in the event of a split.
Some are squeamish about asking for prenuptial agreements, but don’t be. “A lot of people find this topic distasteful,” says Marra, “but they really should consider it, especially if one spouse has a lot more money than the other.” It simply makes good sense to have a conversation about a potential division of assets before getting married, to prevent complications if the marriage doesn’t last. Prenups are even more important in second marriages, which are statistically much more likely to end in divorce. Finances become increasingly complicated, especially when children from prior unions factor in, Marra says. “If things go south the second time around, it’s going to be a bigger mess than the first.”
What about the dogs? Or in Westchester, maybe the horses? County residents spend a lot on both and on pets in general. Couples can sign what’s known as a “pet-nup” to decide custody of companion animals in the event of a split and to ensure money will (or will not) be made available for their care.
Amicable breakups notwithstanding, messy divorces still exist. People fight over money, hide assets, commit fraud, cheat, and sometimes even threaten violence. It would be foolish to pretend such things aren’t happening, and the lawyers interviewed for this story have seen it all. Each of them also, when asked directly, confessed to believing in true love and the importance of marriage to the health of society in general. But when marriages fail, it’s important that couples are aware of all of their options — and expensive court-battle divorces are not the only way to go.
Divorce lawyers needn’t be hired based on their ruthless reputations. In fact, many attorneys now focus on the notion of positive change rather than on what’s being potentially being lost. Divorce may “seem like the end of the world,” because one’s life’s plan has changed so drastically, says attorney Elizabeth Douglas of the Douglas Family Law Group, PLLC, in White Plains. So she believes part of her job is to help her clients to thrive despite that “and to create the next chapter of their lives.”
Of course, no one is saying that ending a marriage is easy. “Divorce can be really tough,” says Harrison attorney Marianne Hoffman. “You’re dealing with a lot of important, emotional issues. But I try to educate clients, give them all the resources they need. My goal is to get people through this difficult time and out on the other side, ready to move forward.”