Wedded or not, breakups take toll on Sonoma County couples

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If marriage isn’t what it used to be, the same can be said for divorce.

The number of married couples filing for divorce in Sonoma County has dropped 15 percent over the past five years, suggesting fewer people wish to divide assets and fight over children.

But experts say the statistic is misleading and doesn’t take into account an overall decline in marriage.

More couples than ever are living together and having kids out of wedlock, for a variety of reasons. And they call it quits just like their married counterparts.

The difference is, their numbers aren’t recorded at the county courthouse.

That’s not to say they don’t wind up in court, because those couples do. Divorce lawyers are busy as ever with never-married clients fighting over shared property and child custody.

“I’m slammed,” said Santa Rosa attorney Angelle Wertz. “I’m getting lots of calls every single week.”

Sonoma County’s decline in divorce rate mirrors a national trend that started in the early 1980s after a surge in divorces the previous decade. Americans began putting off marriage until they were older, better educated and more financially well-off, leading to greater stability in relationships.

Three decades later, demographers question the once-popular notion that half of all marriages end in divorce, although data suggests that’s about right.

Sonoma County last year issued 3,201 marriage licenses and received 1,727 divorce petitions. The divorce filings are down from 2011 when 2,013 couples got unhitched. Legal separations over the same five-year period dropped from 137 to 100, said Jose Guillen, executive officer of Sonoma County Superior Court.

Jeff Cookston, professor of psychology and fatherhood researcher at San Francisco State University, said the 50 percent rule may include second and third marriages. He said it’s inaccurate when you consider the fact that childbirth outside of marriage has increased dramatically in recent years. Up to 40 percent of all children are born to unmarried mothers and fathers, he said.

And those couples split with similar frequency to married couples, causing the same trauma to finances and children.

“It’s safe to say the majority of all relationships end in some sort of dissolution,” Cookston said.

Others argue the divorce rate is overinflated.

Brian Gillespie, a Sonoma State University sociology professor who has studied human relationships, said the oft-quoted “half” theory is part of a “convenient, sensationalist narrative” decrying the demise of the American family.

He said what’s clear is that people are being more selective about who they marry, taking the time to “kiss more frogs.” And they are postponing marriage for financial reasons such as staggering student debt, he said.

“People who marry later have less time to spend with their partner to learn to hate them,” he quipped.

Still, couples continue to split over everything from infidelity to domestic violence. Many wind up in Sonoma County’s family law court, where a judge rules on issues such as child custody, alimony payments and how to divide property.

Judge Jim Bertoli said his court is packed, driven in part by custody disputes.

“My perception is my calendars aren’t getting any smaller,” he said.

Divorces seem to increase in good economic times when people think they can afford to split up. But he said the reality for most is divorce is financial shock, borne of $400-an-hour lawyers and the setting up of separate households.

Child support is Bertoli’s first priority. He plugs the parents’ income information into a computer to arrive at monthly payments.

“I say, ‘That’s how much it is,’ and see the paying spouse’s eyes get as big as saucers,” Bertoli said. “The receiving spouse usually responds, “I can’t get by on that.’”

Because it’s expensive to live in Sonoma County, many divorcing couples seek to move away and want to take the kids with them. He’ll put the brakes on that if it’s not shown to be in the best interests of the child.

“Those are obviously some of the more problematic cases,” he said.

Couples who don’t want a judge overseeing their divorce seek the services of a mediator to try to reach agreement. Bill Doty has brokered thousands of divorces in that role over the past 16 years.

Doty encourages couples to talk openly and figure out a peaceful end to their relationships. If it fails and winds up before a judge anyway, none of the information can be used in court.

“What I tell people, getting divorced is be open and aboveboard,” Doty said. “And be reasonable. It’s never going to be a one-way street.”

Parting couples have much incentive to take his advice. Attorney fees in a typical divorce with children can be upward of $20,000.

It’s not uncommon to see people change their minds when they find out what will happen to their finances, said Santa Rosa family law attorney Bob Montgomery.

“When they think about dividing everything up … they take a second look at trying to work things out,” Montgomery said.

Wertz has seen it happen, too. Faced with the prospect of losing half of everything, warring parties choose to stay together. A self-proclaimed romantic, Wertz often suggests they consider the possibility.

“I asked a client the other day if he was sure he wanted a divorce,” said the Santa Rosa attorney. “He said not necessarily. I just don’t want her to ever live with me again.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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