It really wasn't so long ago that Bruce Carlino felt sure that his company's prosperous times would last. If not forever, at least for a good long while.
So when Carlino's alimony and support payments were decided in 2006, he was willing and able to pay 51 percent of all the bills for his two children, then ages 14 and 11.
Unfortunately, Carlino's business was automobiles. GM automobiles, in fact. Since then, sales at the agency where he is a sales manager have gone from 70 cars a month to 25.
Now Carlino, his income at the South Jersey agency halved, is filing in court to have his payments reduced.
"I can't tell you but how quickly it came," said Carlino, 49, of Marlton, who had been married 21 years before his divorce. "People hear bankruptcy, and would you buy a GM car?"
The recession has changed many circumstances, not the least of which is people who have thought about divorce, are in the midst of a divorce, or, like Carlino, are going through the aftermath of divorce.
Divorce rates generally rise during recessions, but only in small increments, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The theory: Bad economic times exacerbate tensions already present in the marriage.
Yet these days, even divorces are taking a hit. No national statistics have been published for this year, but local divorce lawyers have noticed a drop. The reason? They believe it's a fear of filing.
"With people nervous about the economy and the loss of income, they are reticent about making a move," said Barry Chatzinoff of Chatzinoff and Zoll, a Cherry Hill matrimonial law firm. "I noticed it starting in January. It was like the faucet had been turned off. Last year was still a strong year, but this year, people are coming in for consultations, but just not filing."
Nancy Gold, an attorney from Mount Laurel, said the recent recession has put an emphasis on assets - what will I have to give up if I go through with this?
"Most people's largest assets these days are their retirement accounts and their houses," she said. "People can't sell their houses at virtually any price, and until people believe the market is going up, they aren't going to want to do anything with stock accounts either."
During previous recessions, said Chatzinoff, when couples contemplated divorce, they didn't experience the precipitous rise in asset values that preceded this economy. People weren't expecting the economy to drastically change, either, so divorce was based more on desire, not finances.
During the Great Depression, the divorce rate initially declined. But it increased during the Depression's later years, according to David Popenoe, founder and codirector of the National Marriage Project, a research center at Rutgers University.
"People may tough it out first in a bad economy, but eventually, divorce is a psychological thing," he said. Putting it off only increases stress and contributes to a declining marriage. "In most cases, it can be only put off for so long."
Richard Klein, who represents Carlino, anticipates seeing an increase in cases similar to Carlino's - where the income loss likely is permanent. Like the car business, the financial industry - also comprising people with good incomes and portfolios - has shed jobs. Typically, said Klein, cases take months to decide, but he believes Carlino's will be settled by the summer because of the circumstances.
Still, when it comes to petitioning for reduced payments, this is the one time that a lasting income loss will act in your favor.
In the past, when asking the court for a reduction, "it couldn't be that you just lost your job, since in most cases, you could get another one in your field," Klein said. "Plus, for the most part, your assets would still be going up."
Since Carlino has worked in the car business for 30 years, there's little opportunity for him to learn a new trade that will pay even close to his current salary. Still working the same long hours for less money, he can't get a second job, either.
The pain has been felt across economic lines.
"Unemployment has hit everywhere," said West Chester attorney Steven H. Rubin. "Everyone did better in the early years of this decade, so no matter what level you were at, this looks like a bad time."
This economy has made the lower-earning spouse more vulnerable in divorces as well, said Chatzinoff.
When money gets tight, he said, many women take on more work hours (nationally, the Census Bureau says 96 percent of alimony recipients are female) to compensate for their husbands' losing income or seeing other assets decrease. Come time for a divorce, she will be bringing in a greater percentage of family income and therefore in a worse position when a judge makes alimony or child-support decisions, Chatzinoff said.
"Divorce is not easy under any circumstances, but in tight economic times, it can be really treacherous."