Planning on sticking it to your soon-to-be-ex spouse? Now in the state of New Jersey, you're going to have to really want to.
Under a law recently signed by Gov. Corzine, unhappy couples can seek a divorce on the grounds of "irreconcilable differences" that have "caused the breakdown of the marriage for a period of six months" with "no reasonable prospect of reconciliation."
Before, couples had to live in separate residences for at least 18 months to qualify for a no-fault divorce. Or, if they wanted to hasten the process, they could file for divorce on the basis of misconduct - including adultery, habitual drunkenness, or the biggie: "extreme cruelty," which requires one spouse to catalog the other's bad deeds. Naturally, that feature of the law did much to ratchet up the rancor in an already unhappy process.
Many family-law attorneys are hailing the new "irreconcilable differences" grounds as a more humane way to divorce.
The new law also might lead to a quicker - and cheaper - split. The new statute, along with a court rule enacted in September requiring divorce lawyers to advise their clients about the option of mediation, could save people on lawyers' fees.
"It has a positive impact," said Thomas J. Hurley, a family-law attorney in Moorestown whose firm already has invoked the new grounds. "Individuals no longer have to start the divorce process by casting aspersions on their spouse."
"It's so much easier," said his law partner, Kathryn M. Laughlin, cochair of the Camden County Bar Association's family-law section. "It lets the parties focus on getting an amicable resolution and an equitable distribution without focusing on what their spouse did to them."
Pennsylvania allows no-fault divorce by mutual consent after 90 days from the filing and receipt of a divorce complaint, or - if both spouses don't consent - after two years of the couple living "separate and apart."
"Irretrievable breakdown" of the marriage is the key phrase in Pennsylvania. Patricia Dubin, an officer with the Philadelphia Bar Association's family-law section, said most divorces are granted through the no-fault provision.
Several fault-based grounds, however, still exist. They include desertion, indignities, and "cruel and barbarous treatment."
New Jersey's new law also applies to same-sex civil unions, which will commence later this month.
Not everyone is cheering.
The New Jersey Catholic Conference, in a written statement issued before the new divorce law was passed, said six months is not enough time to conclude that a marriage should be dissolved. The Catholic Conference said the new law would "facilitate divorces rather than support, preserve or reconcile marriages and families."
Sally Goldfarb, a family-law expert and associate professor at Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, said it remained to be seen how individual judges across the state would interpret the law and what kinds of evidence they would require, particularly when both spouses don't agree the marriage is over.
Even divorces sought under the new statute aren't guaranteed to be antagonism-free, she noted.
"There are still plenty of opportunities for people who want to express their hostility," Goldfarb said.
Divorce often does not bring out the best in people. Marlton lawyer Scott Newman recalled one battling couple: "These people were arguing over $12 a week in child support and the weed whacker."
Divorce complaints based on extreme cruelty - still a legal option - tend to aggravate tensions, said several lawyers, because they require at least some slinging of mud.
Some people think wrongly that pointing out their spouse's bad behavior will help them get better child-custody and property deals, lawyers said. It almost never does, they said.
And some people drag their kids into the fray.
"I had one case where the father actually sat down with the children and read the complaint," which contained allegations against their mother, said Brian Calpin, a Washington Township lawyer who represented the woman. "He took the complaint and sat down and said, 'This is what I'm saying about Mom.' "
Even when parents are above that sort of thing, divorce complaints, including those citing excessive cruelty, are public record in New Jersey. Children have been known to get their hands on them, as have prospective employers, noted William Donahue, a Haddon Heights lawyer and vice president of the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators.
"The vast majority of the stuff in complaints is not criminal, but it makes you look like a really sleazy person," Donahue said.
And then for all those who want to sling mud and stick it to their spouses, there are some people who want to end their marriage with their dignity intact and with as little ill will as possible.
Donahue said one client was "thrilled" when the new law was enacted. She had been asking him to hold off filing a fault-based divorce complaint out of concern for her spouse's reaction. "She wanted to maintain a civil relationship with him," Donahue said.