Divorces down overall, family law changes with the times

The U.S. divorce rate began falling in the early 1990s and has since continued on an overall downward trend. In 1992, there were 4.8 divorces per 1,000 people. By 2016, it had dropped to 3.2.

According to the World Economic Forum, that’s due in large part to millennials. Unlike baby boomers who tended to marry young regardless of their circumstances, millennials – and some Gen Xers – are marrying later, choosing to wait until they have completed their education, have established their careers and/or are on sound financial footing.


Local divorce attorneys say trends like these are shifting their business somewhat. “It seems like we’re in a period of self-awareness – health, finance, and being self-aware of who they [marry],” said Shelley Kester of Wilson Kester Divorce & Family Law in Traverse City.

While many are waiting longer to get married, more couples are living together without being married. When they have children, complications arise should they split.

Lee Ann Sterling of Sterling Law in Traverse City said the fathers need to secure court orders for custody and parenting time, “otherwise mothers have full rights by default.”

Local divorce attorneys said no matter the circumstances, they are always most concerned with the children when a marriage ends. “Family law is always going to be relationship-based, and (focused on) the best interest of the children,” said Kester.

But there are shifts in the trends, Sterling said. “What I do see is many more unmarried parents,” she said. “Forty-two percent of children in Michigan are born to unmarried parents.”


Sterling is an advocate for fathers, especially in those cases where the father and mother never married. Sterling Law is an affiliate of ADAM, American Divorce Association of Men, which also has offices downstate.

Family law attorney Gerald Chefalo agreed. He said a case where an unmarried couple who had been together eight years decided to separate. They had a five-year-old child. “That struck me,” he said. “I don’t know that was something I saw (previously).”

Another area Chefalo pointed to is older married couples divorcing. “I see people in their 60s, 70s having no problem getting divorced,” he said.

According to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, “gray divorce” for couples aged 50 or older doubled between 1990 and 2010. The parenting website Fatherly.com cited the amount of baby boomers in the U.S. (74.6 million), their increased life expectancy, and shifting ideas of what marriage means have all contributed to the uptick.

Chefalo said as the years pass and a couple has grown apart or feel they are in an abusive relationship, he believes they are more likely to end the marriage than they would have been in years past. “They feel they should be happy,” he said.


While the rise of technology has disrupted industries from retail to real estate, there’s not yet an app for an instant divorce. But several advances have made divorce easier to navigate. It’s easier than ever to file papers electronically. The area has been a pilot program for TrueFiling, a 24×7 web-based e-file and e-service solution for courts, law firms, attorneys, and self-represented filers, which Kester praised.

“They’re time-saving; it’s cost-effective. You sign, scan, upload. It goes to the appropriate party,” she said.

And as it is online, it’s open all day, every day. “There’s no need to hustle to make it to court by 5 p.m.,” Kester said.

She also pointed to the Uniform Collaborative Law Act, which went into effect April 1. It’s a collaborative divorce process which takes things out of the litigation mode. “It’s not about the procedure, but about problem-solving,” she said.

All three attorneys cited OurFamilyWizard, a website with an app. It enables divorced parents to see and access a complete family calendar to coordinate parenting time and activities. Kester said it also has a tone meter, which will highlight words or messages that could be insulting or angry-sounding. “The complexity of family law means you have to substantiate claims, bring in emails and texts. It documents who entered items and when,” said Sterling.

Technology has also changed the way lawyers try to reach their markets. When attorneys first began to advertise their services, it led to ads in newspapers, on TV and page after page of listings in the Yellow Pages of phone directories.
Now, lawyers instead turn to the web for their own sites and Facebook accounts.

“People rely on reviews. That wasn’t a thing,” said Chefalo. “Review sites drive more traffic than anything. Now everybody wants to attract people to their site with reviews.”

He said the website AVVO.com is one of many that provides potential clients with information about numerous local attorneys practicing in the different fields of law. “There’s a multitude of sites trying to attract attorneys,” he said.

Not that he indulges overmuch in requesting or policing reviews. “I said I will not pay money for it,” he said. “I’ll let people make their own decisions.”