ORLANDO, Fla. - Breaking up is hard to do, but during a recession, it's even tougher.
Couples who want to split up often are handicapped: by the high cost of attorneys' fees, because they can't sell their homes or can't afford to set up two households.
So some of them are stuck living together - miserably.
"Some are agreeing to be roommates and stay at separate ends of the house," said attorney J.J. Dahl, who handles about 65 divorce cases each year. "And we have some who have gotten divorced and they're staying in the house together until the market improves and they can sell it."
This is new territory for Dahl, who says that none of her clients was doing this two or three years ago. But today, she finds that 25 percent of her clients are living together to make ends meet until they sell the house - and another quarter have given up and are losing their homes to foreclosure because they couldn't stand living together anymore.
Nationwide, the divorce rate appears to be the lowest since 1970, according to preliminary numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics.
"There is a lot of fear, so people are staying put," said Gary Nickelson, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "People look at their assets and their liquidity, and they realize they don't have any."
At Orange County family court, Judge Janet Thorpe said the mood has changed dramatically.
"Back when I started in 2006, we were dealing with the peak of the real-estate boom," Thorpe said. "Divorce is usually devastating, but when the home was being sold for a large profit, people were walking out with dollar bills hanging off them - and they were smiling."
Now, she said, many divorcing couples view their homes as a liability.
"People are saying, 'You take the house,' while the other says, 'No, you take the house.'"
Many couples are stuck living together until they can sell the house.
Living under the same roof - with all the tension that led to separation - is difficult, however. One of Dahl's clients tried to stay in the same home with his ex-wife while it was for sale. After a year with no nibbles on the house, he moved in with his parents.
That scenario, though unpleasant, is becoming more common.
Real-estate agent Gerri Gallo said one of her clients, a couple who divorced in December, cannot sell their 7,000-square-foot Windermere, Fla., house because the market has caved for such high-end homes. So the couple, in their early 60s, are stuck living together.
Now, they get up at different times of the morning and eat at different times to avoid each other.
"And when friends come to see her - they're really their friends - it's pretty awkward," Gallo said.
In previous recessions, things weren't so bad - particularly for the wealthy. But this recession has hit every income bracket. Even developers and car dealers once worth millions of dollars are swimming in debt, said Richard West, an Orlando divorce attorney whose clientele includes some of the city's wealthiest couples.
Though some middle-class couples may be staying in their homes together until they can sell, West said, many of his well-to-do clients have simply quit paying their mortgages - because they know they will lose the house anyway. By skipping their mortgage payments for months, they can afford for one - or both - of the partners to move out of the house and into an apartment or rental house, he said. There's nothing illegal about the practice, and because banks and mortgage companies are so backed up, couples may have time before they're evicted to scrape together the money needed to rent.
Of the 45 divorce cases that West is working on, more than 25 percent of the couples are losing their homes or expecting to in the coming months.
"This was virtually unheard-of two years ago," West said.
Sam Weiss, an Orlando divorce attorney and mediator, said that when he started practicing family law 37 years ago, most divorce settlements came to a simple conclusion: The wife kept the house, and the husband kept the business or his retirement plan. Or they would divide the equity in the house and each would start over.
"What I've seen in the last 24 months is a paradigm shift," Weiss said. "The business has tanked, the 401(k) has been bled dry and they have taken a home-equity line of credit and are now upside down in the equity in their house. Basically, you're seeing people who, after 15 or 20 years, are walking away from a marriage with debt."
Attorney Norman Levin recently opened self-help family law centers where people can get help filling out legal forms for custody, divorce or child support. A 20-minute consultation with a lawyer costs $50, and although the centers have been open only a few months, they've already helped 20 clients, Levin said. "I looked at this idea three years ago and decided not to do it," Levin said. "But at the end of last year, when the economy tanked, it made sense to do it."
If history is any guide, the divorce rate may pick up when the economy rebounds. Sociologists who have studied the Great Depression found that the divorce rate dropped dramatically during that time - but began to rise again in 1934, when employment picked up.
For some people, however, putting off divorce may reap some benefits.
"I had one couple who started to file for divorce but put the proceedings on hold because the husband lost his job," said Dahl. Not long ago, they called Dahl and asked her to close the divorce file. "They said, 'We made it through this tough time, and we learned how to compromise, so we've decided to stick it out.'"
(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.