No-fault divorce

ALBANY — The State Senate on Tuesday, clearing aside decades of opposition, put New York on a course to adopt no-fault divorce — the last state to do so. It approved legislation that would permit couples to separate by mutual consent, a major shift with sweeping implications for families and lawyers.

For decades, New Yorkers have been bedeviled by divorce laws that critics said prompted endless litigation and custody fights that were both unnecessary and cruel.

Under current divorce law, one spouse must take the blame, even if both sides agree that a marriage cannot be saved. To get a divorce, one party must allege cruel and inhuman treatment or adultery or abandonment, or the couple must be legally separated for one year.

The new legislation still has to pass the State Assembly, which is considering two bills that would include some version of no-fault divorce. But advocates said Tuesday that they believed that victory in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans until last year, gave the measure momentum and a high likelihood of gaining approval in the Assembly, which is also controlled by Democrats.

Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, is expected to support the bill if both houses of the Legislature approve it, although a spokesman cautioned that Mr. Paterson would need to review any final legislation before signing it.

Efforts to change the state’s divorce laws have been repeatedly turned back over the years, even as other states moved to liberalize their matrimonial laws to include some version of no-fault divorce.

Opponents included the Roman Catholic Church, which objects to making divorce easier, as well as some women’s advocates, who feared that no-fault divorce would deprive women — especially poor women who could not afford lengthy litigation — of leverage they needed to obtain fair alimony or child support agreements from husbands seeking to divorce them.

But supporters of no-fault divorce said the law in some cases induced couples to falsely testify to abandonment simply to speed up the process. Senate passage of the bill was considered a major victory.

“What I’m hoping is that because the Assembly now has a partner in the Senate, that will give impetus to help the Assembly move along,” Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Democrat from Westchester and the Bronx who was the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, said after the vote.

The bill passed 32 to 27, according to an unofficial tally, with all but two Democrats joined by two Republicans in support.

Assemblyman Jonathan L. Bing, a Manhattan Democrat who is sponsoring the Assembly version of the same bill, said his legislation had 69 co-sponsors, nearly enough for the 76 needed to pass the Assembly.

“I think that, generally, leadership in the Assembly is supportive of moving forward in this area,” Mr. Bing said. “I think it would be a tremendous step on behalf of New Yorkers.”

Undergirding the vote on Tuesday was a noticeable shift in the public debate in recent years. In 2004, the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York reversed its longstanding opposition to no-fault divorce.

“We came to the realization that forcing one party to either admit or be found at fault in the deterioration of a marriage provides no economic or other advantage to either party,” said Annette G. Hasapidis, co-chairwoman of the association’s legislation committee. “And more importantly, it harms the children of the marriage.”

In 2006, a panel appointed by Judith S. Kaye, then the state’s chief judge, urged a major overhaul of New York’s divorce and child custody rules, including allowing no-fault divorce.

But the Senate vote is a blow to Catholic bishops in the state. In a statement, Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, said that his group believed that existing law had sufficient protections for spouses seeking a divorce because of abuse or adultery and that the state had a legitimate interest in requiring couples to be legally separated for at least a year before divorcing.

“New York State has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country,” Mr. Barnes said. “While we see that as a cause for state pride, sadly some may see it as a problem to be corrected.

“We urge the State Assembly to reject this proposal, and, failing that, we call on Governor Paterson to veto it.”

The Senate also passed two related bills intended to allay fears among women’s rights groups and advocates for women facing domestic abuse.

One would ensure that in a divorce, spouses are on a more equal financial footing when it comes to retaining lawyers. While state law allows judges to require the wealthier spouse to pay the legal bill for the less wealthy spouse, the new law would require judges to make those arrangements early on in a divorce case. A matching bill passed the Assembly in May.

The third bill would set up a standard formula that judges would need to use to determine support payments, known in New York as maintenance. Though judges would still have discretion to modify those awards, backers said that the provision would take much of the uncertainty out of divorce proceedings, where a patchwork of case law has resulted in widely inconsistent awards.

But Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairwoman of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said she might seek changes to the Senate language before it went to a vote in her house.

Ms. Weinstein has sponsored a broader divorce bill in the Assembly that includes a no-fault provision but has different language on maintenance awards than the Senate bill.

“I don’t think that their maintenance bill is the final point where we need to go,” Ms. Weinstein said.

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