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Viewpoint: Seasonal peak in divorce actions tied to holidays

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Leslie B. Spoltore, Guest Columnist

The holiday season often brings families together to celebrate the past year. It is often a time of joy. However, for some couples, the holidays can also serve as a reminder that a serious change is needed. In my family law practice, I often see an increase in new client calls in February and March, when the joyous sentiment of December fades and the New Year gets under way.

Statistics on the annual number of divorce actions filed in the United States are abundant and often readily available. In Delaware, statistics on the number of petitions for divorce or annulment filed each year are disclosed in The Delaware Judiciary Annual Report. The 2013, 2014 and 2015 Annual Reports reflect 3,650, 3,502 and 3,480 divorce/annulment filings in each of those years respectively. In 2014 and 2015 the Annual Reports also reflect civil dissolution filings for same-sex couples. Nine civil dissolution actions were filed in 2014 and two in 2015.

Although annual statistics provide a view of a state as a whole, there can be no doubt that each single petition that makes up the annual total involves a tremendously personal situation.

A recent study by University of Washington associate sociology professor Julie Brines and doctoral candidate Brian Serafini found what they believe to be the first quantitative evidence that divorce is seasonal. Their research, which analyzed filings in the state of Washington from 2001 to 2015, found that filings peaked in March and August. They believe that these spikes may be driven by a “domestic ritual” calendar following two traditionally family-focused periods – the holidays and summer vacation.

Professor Brines explained that people often face the holiday season with rising expectations, despite the difficulties they might have had during the year. The holidays “represent periods in the year when
there’s the anticipation or the opportunity for a new beginning, a new start, some-thing different, a transition into a new period of life. It’s like an optimism cycle, in a sense. They’re very symbolically charged moments in time for the culture,” she stated. These charged moments may cause couples to see the holiday season as a time to mend their relationship, she said. However, when these expectations are not met, people can become disenchanted with their relationship all over again. This can make them more likely to take steps toward a divorce after the holiday season ends, the researchers said. This, they say, may explain the seasonal patterns of divorce.

The link between the holiday season and a spike in divorce or annulment petitions in March may not be obvious at first blush. If people are unhappy in January, why are they filing in March? The researchers suggest that although disheartened with their marriage, people may not be filing immediately because they need time. Time to prepare both emotionally and practically. Some may need time to summon the courage to file. Some may need time to get documents or finances organized. In addition, they may need time to find and retain an attorney. Although couples who divorce after the summer vacation period face the same considerations, the researchers suggest that the start of the school year may hasten the process.

While future research will examine whether the trends found in Washington are similarly found in other states, they have already examined data for several states with similar divorce laws, including Ohio, Florida and Arizona. Although the laws are similar, the researchers noted that the demographics and economic conditions of these states differ from Washington. Despite these differences, the seasonal peaks remained, they said.

Leslie B. Spoltore is a partner with Fox Rothschild LLP and a member of the Family Law Department. She can be reached at lspoltore@foxrothschild.com or (302) 622-4203.

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