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How Natural Disasters Can Impact Divorce

As we approach the final weeks of 2021, Californians are all too familiar with the risk of wildfires during this time of year. CAL FIRE reports our state’s ongoing series of wildfires have burned more than 3 million acres across the state in the past 11 months. The destruction of lives and property caused by natural disasters such as wildfire, earthquakes, or floods can profoundly affect our relationships.

While some studies suggest that married couples become closer during a natural disaster, for many divorcing couples, it can have a negative impact and put the already strained relationship under significant additional stress. According to Slate, catastrophes and the pressure that follows can take a toll on intimate relationships. While divorce rates decrease after anthropogenic hazards caused by human action or inaction, more couples split up after natural disasters. Experts believe this happened because people were left with significant interruptions to every aspect of their daily routines, hefty economic stressors, and experienced an increased risk of anxiety and depression, which are known to put marriages to the test.

As the state continues battling a severe drought amid fire season, homeowners near fire-prone areas remain on high alert as wildfires become more extensive and more intense each year. According to Forbes, around 4.5 million homes are located near high or extreme risk of wildfire, and more than 2,500 homes are destroyed each year due to wildfires. Those going through a divorce know this can be a significant challenge during the process. While some spouses may choose to hold their assets together until the divorce is finalized, others may elect to “buy out” the other’s shares of a marital asset to sell the proceeds. To do this, the parties must either agree on the home’s fair market value or hire an appraiser to determine it.  According to a report by Core Logic, determining home values can be a challenge for appraisers following a natural disaster. Property appraisal becomes an additional challenge as it is impossible to negotiate a deal with your former spouse unless there are accurate numbers.

Although powerful storms such as hurricanes or typhoons are not common on the West Coast, people living on the other side of the country deal with hurricane season each year. Hurricanes have the potential to bring devastation to families, as they can change their lives in a short amount of time. Storms can not only impact the family home and possessions, but they can ultimately change people’s lives. According to a report by Psychology Today, divorce rates increased following significant storms such as Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Sandy, and most notably, Hurricane Katrina. The Huffington Post reported the divorce rate in New Orleans following the devastating storm nearly doubled.

One challenge divorced parents face during a natural disaster is enforcing child custody orders during events such as earthquakes and wildfires. Often, the custodial parent may unintentionally violate a court-ordered exchange to keep the children safe during a catastrophe. These occurrences are rare, but they do happen, and in these cases, it is crucial to put the children’s safety first. It is still important to remember that you are still legally required to follow the stipulations listed in the court order to the best of your ability. As natural disasters continue to increase in amount and intensity in the coming years, parents who share custody of their children should plan on reassessing their parenting plans and visitation arrangements to ensure there is a plan in case of a significant event.

Some spouses may find that natural disasters bring them closer together as they deal with the aftermath. Still, it can bring unwanted challenges and issues for those who are currently separated or going through a divorce. With natural disasters comes destruction, such as the potential loss of the marital home, a crucial factor during the divorce proceedings.

The aftermath these catastrophes leave behind can significantly interrupt everyday life, causing economic stress for families and emotional stress, and many marriages are not always able to overcome those challenges, leading to divorce. In these types of cases, it’s vital to seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney who will guide the next appropriate steps.

In the most straightforward California divorces, couples equally divide their modest assets and move on with their lives. In many dissolutions, the math and the legalities of community property are infinitely more complicated. Splitting the estate down the middle might be impractical, and the complexities of certain estates may warrant more creative solutions. There could be significant disagreement about certain assets’ value or whether a community property interest even exists. The experienced divorce lawyers at SFLG help clients establish priorities, choose their battles, and secure their fair share of the estate so that they will emerge from the divorce in the most advantageous financial position.

by Debra Schoenberg