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Live-In Divorce

Tortured couples who have to stay together.


From the February 5, 1990 issue of New York Magazine.

The man who is divorcing Judy Lazarro* sleeps and works in the room directly above her bedroom. Until about three every morning, she gets only a fitful rest, for she's constantly startled awake by the squeak of his chair casters, the deliberate thump of his coffee mug on the desk. When his footsteps sound on the stairs, she jolts upright. He looms on the landing, casts her a baleful look, and then descends to the kitchen for yet another cup of coffee

Judy and Tom* have lived this way for the eight months since they hired their divorce lawyers. There is no settlement in sight.

Whatever happened to the divorce scenario we used to see in the movies—husband packs suitcase, the couple's eyes meet in pain and regret, and then, with the slam of a door, they begin learning to live apart? It is gone, say the experts, for many reasons—flat housing sales, the difficulty of finding an affordable apartment, the high cost of living, and laws and recent court decisions on the division of property, occupancy rights, and custody and child support.

The War of the Roses is an absurdist take on a modern reality. Couples of every social stratum are forced to stay together in hostility these days, says matrimonial lawyer Raoul Lionel Felder, "whether they live in a mansion on Fifth Avenue or a rent-control on Avenue A."

Stanford Lotwin, of Tenzer, Greenblatt, Fallon & Kaplan, estimates that since 1980, the number of couples living in the same house while they're negotiating a divorce has increased by one third. But a divorce-law columnist for the New York Law Journal—Leonard Florescue, of Ruskin, Schlissel, Moscou, Evans & Faltischek—thinks things are even worse: He estimates that the number of such arrangements has jumped by 50 percent in the past few years.

The live-in divorce, laments Felder, "is barbaric—one of the tragedies of the whole system." New York State courts, unlike many others, do not routinely award temporary exclusive occupancy of a residence to one party. In New York, there is no way you can get a spouse out, Felder explains, without showing that there's danger of physical violence. He sighs. "The law loves a broken finger."

For the most part, people living this hellish life are hanging on for compelling reasons: because they can't afford to leave or because leaving would jeopardize their chance to win custody of their children. But some have lesser motives: They aim to harass their mate into a more favorable settlement, or they simply like their house and are determined to keep it.

Hanging on is the tactic their lawyers advise—especially if parents are fighting over custody. According to Florescue, appellate decisions in the First and Second Departments (whose rulings affect most people in the metropolitan area) clearly indicate that the courts are unlikely to award custody to the parent who moves out. Declares lawyer Betty Levinson, most of whose clients are women, "I say to mothers, 'You never leave your kids.' "

And the child-support guidelines that went into effect in New York State this past September make it likely that even more couples will stay together while they do battle in the divorce court. The guidelines require non-custodial parents to contribute 17 percent of their gross income (usually with only minor adjustments) for the support of one child, 25 percent of their income for two. "It's one of the least well-thought-out pieces of well-meaning legislation I've ever seen," Florescue says. He, like Harris Grossman, a partner in the Nassau County firm Wolfson, Grossman & Austin, believes such high requirements will steer some fathers to seek custody as an economic benefit—inciting more custody battles and trapping even more opponents in the same house.

The twelve people interviewed for this article have lived with their estranged mates for eight months to three years after retaining counsel and beginning divorce negotiations or litigation. Though many had long been unhappily married, their need to get out—and get on with their lives—became a driving force as soon as they hired their lawyers. "I feel as if I'm in limbo" was the heartfelt complaint of all parties, even those who gave as their reason for staying, "It's my house. Let him [her] leave."

Whenever possible, both husband and wife were interviewed. But in some cases, only one side of the story can be told because delicate settlement talks—indeed, even the safety of the interviewee—would have been jeopardized had the other partner known his mate had spoken to New York.

Judy Lazarro has to stay with Tom until she gets her divorce: She has three daughters under twelve years old and no money of her own. "Tom always kept me on a tight leash," she says; though his construction company brings them an income of $200,000 a year, Tom handles it, and the bank account is in his name. Judy, 39, has not held a job since her children were born; she can neither move out nor force him to leave their $900,000 Connecticut home.

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