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New York State Senate’s Democratic Majority Passes Legislative Package To Approve No-Fault Divorce

Forty years ago, no-fault divorce was a controversial topic. Among the arguments made against it was that the full-time homemaker would lose leverage if unilateral divorce became a reality. But the American household has changed considerably over the years: more and more, two-parent earner households are the norm, and the working mom/stay-at-home dad model has become commonplace. Since 1969, when Gov. Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, the country has gradually fallen into place with no-fault divorce legislation—except for New York State.

But that seems about to change. On Tuesday, June 15, the State Senate’s Democratic Majority passed a legislative package that seeks to finally end New York’s status as the remaining state without no-fault divorce. The No-Fault Divorce bill restructures New York State’s matrimonial law to streamline the process and improve the outcome of divorce for New Yorkers. The bill, approved 32-29, would allow no-fault divorce after a marriage has “irretrievably” broken down for six months or more and after all financial and custody issues are resolved. The legislative package must still pass the State Assembly, which is considering two bills that would adopt some version of no-fault divorce.

Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Democrat from Westchester and the Bronx who was chief Senate sponsor of the bill, said after the vote, “What I’m hoping is that because the Assembly now has a partner in the Senate, that will give impetus to help the Assembly move along.”

Under current law, New York couples who want to divorce must fault their spouse on specific grounds, such as adultery or cruel and inhuman treatment. Otherwise, couples must legally separate for a year before being allowed to file for divorce. Proponents of no-fault divorce say a great deal of time and expense—often beyond the means of a spouse—is wasted on legal fees, making a difficult situation considerably worse. The New York Senate legislation—S3890—would permit spouses unilaterally to initiate divorce proceedings in which the court rather than the parties will resolve issues such as property division, alimony, child support and custody.

There have been many concerted efforts over the years to change New York State’s divorce laws, but to no avail. In 2006, for example, a panel appointed by Judith S. Kaye, then New York State’s chief judge, urged a major overhaul of New York’s divorce and child custody rules—including allowing, at long last, no-fault divorce. But opponents, including the National Organization of Women, the Catholic Church and, until 2004, the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, objected to change in the law because, among other reasons, it would raise New York State’s divorce rate and hurt women financially.

Perhaps now, after decades of opposition, and the passage of the legislative package by a slim margin, divorcing spouses in New York State will finally be able to avoid the costly litigation and seemingly endless custody battles that have become all so common when a marriage irrevocably ends.

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