As if divorces weren’t messy enough, along comes a difficult economy.

Earlier this year, divorce moved into the not-right-now category usually reserved for things like expensive vacations, new cars and major appliances as the number of couples signing on with mediators started to slip.

The Alpha Resource Center, for example, which has offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said the number of new clients entering mediation since January has dropped 21 percent from last year.

One of the reasons for this collective divorce hesitation is the slumping real estate market.

Mediators say plunging home prices and houses that sell at a snail’s pace are complicating matters for couples who are looking to dissolve their marriages.

As a result, some couples are telling their mediators they want to try to work things out, and others are applying the brakes rather than barreling through their divorce proceedings.

While they may be experiencing a slowdown in business now, a handful of mediators interviewed recently said they expect it will be only a matter of time before the economic difficulties lead to a resurgence. Money problems, after all, are one of the leading causes of breakups, they said.

“If people need to be divorced, they need to be divorced,” Melissa Barth, a mediator at Alpha Resource Center said matter-of-factly. “While it would be wonderful, the economy is not going to halt that process.”

The economy is, however, altering negotiations and settlements.

Couples are crafting novel agreements designed to protect their assets – mainly their homes – and the prospect of job losses has led some couples to fashion escrow-like provisions to ensure there will be child support in the future despite layoffs or job demotions.

For many prospective divorces, the slumping real estate market has become a giant, irritating wrinkle in their plans to divvy up the assets accumulated during a marriage. Entire divorce settlements may revolve around the sale of the marital home, which is usually the largest of those assets, and these days, a sale can take months.

“It makes settling divorce cases really hard,” said Caryl Leightman, a family law attorney in Springfield, N.J.

One option for some couples is a unique joint venture. It allows one half of the couple to stay in the house or for the house to be rented, according to the mediators.

“It’s a difficult time to be dividing assets,” Barth said. “They’re deciding to ride it out instead of selling the house and losing money.”

It’s not a salve by any means, but often the harsh economic realities force couples to reconsider – even briefly – the idea of ending their marriage.

Barth said one couple sat in her office session after session, reviewing the numbers. More than once, she recalled, they looked at one another and said, should we just stay together? Ultimately, she said, they did divorce.

“What I’ve seen is a decline in people willing to go ahead with a divorce right now because of the economic uncertainty,” said Judy Shemming, a Princeton, N.J.-based mediator. “They will go ahead and do a separation agreement, but they won’t file for divorce.”

Keila Gilbert, president of the Alpha Resource Center, which provides divorce mediation as well as family preservation education, has observed a similar hesitation.

“People can’t afford to end their marriages,” Gilbert said. “They’re holding off, but it’s not permanent. The real estate market will ease, the homes will get sold, and the couples will likely proceed with their plans to divorce.”

The turning point may have already arrived.

During the first week of June, there was a noticeable bounce in business. The number of new client sign-ons already is equal to the number for all of June last year, Gilbert said.

It is not uncommon, the mediators said, for dramatic, external events to influence marriages or, rather, divorces.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gilbert said, the pace of divorces slowed because the attacks had a “paralyzing effect” on people. Again, it was not lasting. “Soon, divorcing couples were back in droves,” she said.

The difficult economic conditions only intensify a heart-wrenching process, according to the mediators. Middle-age adults, often with their children in tow, can be forced to move in with their parents because of the financial situation they find themselves in while waiting out the sale of a home or after taking a loss on one.

Susan Todd is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. Email: [email protected]

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