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No-fault divorce measure faces uncertainty in Assembly

ALBANY — The clock is ticking toward the end of the State Legislature's 2010 session, and Assembly leaders are unsure if there is the time or will to follow the Senate in legalizing no-fault divorce laws in New York.

The Senate this week passed legislation to make it quicker and less confrontational for married couples in New York to obtain a divorce. New York would join all other states in permitting couples to end their marriages by mutual consent, without having to assign blame, such as adultery, abandonment or cruel and inhuman punishment.

But while Assembly Democrats have signaled support for the idea, negotiations have not yet begun to resolve serious differences between the two legislative houses, especially over how to reform issues involving post-marriage financial support, known in New York as maintenance.

"I don't know at this point. There are some important issues that surround it," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Friday when asked if the no-fault matter will be negotiated after the state budget is resolved.

Lawmakers are trying to enact the final pieces of the 2010 budget sometime next week. After that, though, no one is quite certain when the Legislature will agree to end its 2010 session; the schedule calls for the session to be over Monday, a timetable that will be ignored because of the unresolved budget issues.

Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Friday the issue still needs to be discussed by Democrats who run the Assembly to determine if there is a consensus to try to get a no-fault deal before lawmakers leave Albany.

"I'm optimistic that we'll be able to conference this issue and be able to advance something. I think we have an opportunity to reform our state's divorce laws, to advance proposals to level the playing field and eliminate some of the economic inequalities that happen post-divorce," said Weinstein, a no-fault supporter.

Permitting no-fault and reforming how maintenance is determined in the state "are very tied together," Weinstein said.

But Weinstein also acknowledged the controversy surrounding no-fault.

In New York, couples must now live apart at least one year and have a separation decree to get a divorce without assigning blame for the divorce.

A state commission, created by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, four years ago called for no-fault laws and the idea has been embraced by the Women's Bar Association.

But religious groups, including the Catholic Conference of New York, opposes the measure, insisting couples will more easily turn to divorce rather than trying to resolve differences.

Women's groups are not unanimous on the effort. While the Women's Bar Association of New York has embraced no-fault, the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women opposes it, saying the Senate bill this week "threw women and children under the bus."

NOW says the Senate bill would allow judges to ignore "cruel and inhuman treatment" by domestic violence victims and award a no-fault divorce.

But Senate Democrats say their bill would help domestic violence victims, some of whom can spend up to seven years trying to weave through the state's divorce system to end a marriage. The Senate bill permits a divorce after a marriage has "irretrievably broken down" for six months or more and after financial and custody issues are resolved.

Advocates for the bill claim New York's laws are Byzantine and create delays and higher costs for couples who want to end their marriages. And they say the state's divorce laws are often unwieldy and too unpredictable.

"I think no fault divorce, as a concept, should be part of our domestic relations law," Silver said this week. But he added a number of "technical" issues must first be worked out before there is a deal with the Senate and Gov. David Paterson.

Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference, said the current laws in New York work well.

"It sends the wrong message to society," Poust said of the no-fault effort. "The state should be looking for ways to strengthen marriages rather than going out of its way to end them."'

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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