Local divorce rates seem unaffected by pandemic

Judge Tom Wright

Calhoun County Judge Tom Wright reaches for paperwork in his courtroom. 

Calhoun County District Judge Tom Wright, who handles divorce cases, was expecting at least a 10 or 15 percent increase in the number of divorces that came through his courtroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it came as a surprise to him Friday to discover that only 175 couples had filed for divorce between March 1 and Friday — three fewer cases than from the same period last year.

“The numbers are almost exactly the same,” Wright said.

Local judges, lawyers and others whose work deals with divorce said the area was seemingly unscathed by predictions that divorces would be on the rise nationally throughout the pandemic. 

“However good or bad that will affect their marriage, time will tell,” Anniston divorce lawyer and mediator Jerry Sills said.

The experts said they may have seen slight decreases, but could expect to see a surge in cases once the pandemic ends.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 700,000 people in the United States seek divorces each year, with rates steadily decreasing.

Lucile Bodenheimer, an Anniston-based clinical psychologist, said Friday she wasn’t currently seeing couples who needed counseling, but noted heightened anxiety among her patients during the pandemic.

Bodenheimer speculated that many couples had worked through their issues while under quarantine. Because of the mass job losses due to the pandemic, she said, other couples may not have had the means to get out.

Additionally, Bodenheimer said, she’s noticed that marriages in younger couples tend to be more healthy and balanced than those of past generations.

George Monk, an Anniston attorney, said he used to hear from eight to 10 people seeking a divorce each week. He said Friday that number dwindled to around two during the pandemic.

“Our phones have kind of stopped ringing,” Monk said. “The presumption is that people have found other ways to deal with each other.”

For the cases that were pending when the pandemic hit, Monk said, trials have been rescheduled for July or August. He said it’s “a lot longer than our efficient judges like.”

“The design being that no child would suffer by not seeing a parent,” he said. 

Sills said he hadn’t noticed a real difference in divorce rates since the pandemic started. 

“I would say things have been about normal,” Sills said.

Sills said his peak period for divorce filings typically comes between February and April, during tax season, each year. This year, he said, the peak came in March, before the pandemic hit. He said he saw filings slow down after that, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. 

He said child custody arrangements and visitation have also been complicated by the pandemic, which is why Wright and Circuit Judge Peggy Miller Lacher decreed that such orders would stay in effect through the pandemic, as long as both parties complied with stay-at-home orders and certain health guidelines.

Bodenheimer, who also serves on the board of directors of 2nd Chance Inc., a local nonprofit that advocates for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, said the group had seen an increase in calls, but not an increase in clients. 

Wright said judges at the Calhoun County Courthouse held emergency hearings, such as those mandated when someone files for a protection from abuse order against another person, but the pandemic caused most hearings to be canceled or postponed for two months.

Because of that, Wright said, he’s seeing larger dockets and hopes to catch up on trials by the end of the year.

“We’re literally trying cases every single day, and we literally lost two months,” he said.

Sills said it’ll likely be August before attorneys and judges start to see the real effect of COVID-19 on divorce rates, since most couples wait to meet with a lawyer between one and two months after making the decision.

“They don’t separate one day and the next day they get a lawyer,” Sills said.