MURRELLS INLET -- Family law attorney Tom Winslow has seen this wave of marriage strife before.
The country goes through a drastic change, and once the dust settles, the divorce filings start to increase. Such is the case during COVID-19 as the divorce rate in Horry and Georgetown counties during the six months following the shut down in South Carolina have slightly decreased. But Winslow and other area professionals in the family law business warn that the numbers don’t mean everything is fine with area married couples.
“During these kinds of times, one of the most common reasons for divorce is money, which is a big strain a lot of times when you lose your job,” said Winslow, of Goldfinch Winslow in Murrells Inlet — a firm that specializes in criminal defense, family law, real estate law and personal injury.
“I think one of the big factors right now for divorce levels not raising to the levels people are expecting is purely not knowing what’s going to happen. There’s a little bit of nervousness going on with the economy. Sometimes they stay together because they have to and a lot of the times they stay together because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
From March 17, 2019, through September 17, 2019, there were 566 divorces filed in Horry County and 70 in Georgetown County. During that same time this year, there were 514 divorces in Horry County and 67 in Georgetown County.
Brana Williams, an attorney and founding partner with Indigo Family Law in Surfside Beach, said she thinks access to the courthouse played a role in the lower number of divorces filed.
"What happened when they basically shut the courts down, nobody knew what to do," Williams said. "Even if they wanted a divorce, they felt like they couldn't because they couldn't see a lawyer, we couldn't really file, we couldn't go to court, we couldn't do anything like that. Now that the courts have opened back up, it actually is picking back up."
Lisa Winters, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University, said the pandemic has had a major impact on most social institutions, and the family is no exception. She said it is difficult to talk about long-term trends based on the raw numbers, but the data showing a decrease in the number of divorces in Horry and Georgetown counties is "not surprising."
"Families have had to make significant changes in their daily lives due to pandemic-related restrictions," Winters said. "Couples are trying to balance work obligations with childcare, and in many cases, with attention to aging parents who may be in the highest-risk category for complications due to COVID-19. These challenges are likely to result in role strain between partners, and ultimately, lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Combine those challenges with the stress of COVID-related financial hardship and a lingering uncertainty about the future, and it is no surprise that couples are at an increased risk of marital conflict."
Winters said although it may seem counter-intuitive, marital conflict during COVID-19 may not result in increased divorce rates — at least not immediately.
"History has shown that many couples choose to delay divorce during times of economic recession," she said, using The Great Depression and The Great Recession as examples. "Changing economic conditions, particularly unemployment and underemployment, make it more likely that couples will postpone divorce to avoid costly legal fees and the expense of setting up separate households. Historically, however, divorce rates begin to rise as the economy recovers."
Williams said her office's divorce case files are increasing, despite an early pandemic resistance.
"Everyone is still a little gun shy for what's going to happen," she said. "Divorce is not just the literal financial out-of-pocket cost to get it done. It's what happens to your overall finances, because you basically are going to divide your worth with the other person. No matter how good a job I do for you as a lawyer, at the end of the day, you still basically lost half your stuff."
Winslow likened the lower divorce rate numbers to the holidays and summertime when people are unwilling to cause strife to the family dynamic during these times.
“I do think that potentially divorces will rise when both spouses have a better idea of what’s going to happen,” Winslow said. “Sometimes it’s easier to deal with the devil you know, like if you don’t have a job but your spouse does, even though you aren’t getting along, you might try to stick it out until you figure out what’s going to happen and the economy gets better so you can get a job and obviously you can survive at that point.”
Williams said the start of school has also played a role.
"What we saw, in the beginning, was that people were really fed up but they really just didn't have the funds and it has taken a little bit of the opening back up to be able to get the funds to initiate," Williams said. "And, of course, it opened back up at the beginning of school, and that's always a slow time because people are worried about getting their children back in school. So, they take a pause."
Winslow said he has also seen an increase in domestic violence, as well.
“It’s caused kind of a ripple effect throughout these different areas of law,” Winslow said. “So many are just high strung and unsure of what’s going to happen.”
South Carolina has two types of dissolutions of marriage — a “no fault” divorce requires a year of separation before being able to file for divorce and “at fault” divorce, which is one of the partners abusing substances like alcohol, drugs or domestic violence, which requires the couple to be separated for three months.
Winslow said he filed a no-fault divorce for one of his clients in September and the hearing was scheduled for December.
“Due to the delay in court in Family Law … you’ve got to wait two to three months just to get into court because of how far back their backlog is,” Winslow said. “So the delay of actually getting into court after you file for divorce is going on about two to three months. Of course, my client wasn’t really excited about that.”
Winslow said he read that China saw an increase in divorce rates around March or April of this year, which was well after they dealt with coronavirus.
“When you force people to spend time together, they come out of it thinking, ‘Man do I really want to be here?’ And then you couple that with an issue with money, money’s probably the No. 1 driving factor when it comes to divorces, it leads to a whole lot of other arguments and strife once again,” Winslow said. “Now you’ve got this coupling effect of pure anxiety, stress and loss of jobs and no schools. It really is just a ticking time bomb. It really is whether or not it’s going to go off and when it’s going to go off. We see that a lot of times after the situation has resolved itself.”