Divorce Corp. Review, Part 3: Questions, Questions, Questions

This is part three of a five-part review of Joseph Sorge's documentary, "Divorce Corp." See also:

One good thing I can say about Joseph Sorge's documentary, Divorce Corp., is that it has sparked a great deal of discussion about family court reform. Unfortunately, much of that discussion has been characterized by anger and tunnel vision, made all the worse by the hyperbole and partial truths in Sorge's film. Frankly, I do not have the time or inclination to address each and every problem with Divorce Corp. – although I have touched on many of them in other parts of this review, and there are a couple more parts still to come. Here, I just want to offer a few questions that I hope will be given deeper treatment as family law professionals and other reform advocates continue this discussion.

Question 1. Is divorce really a $50 billion per year industry?

This is the number Sorge uses to draw people into watching the film; it features prominently in all of the promotions. Divorce Corp. is a "shocking exposé of the inner workings of the $50 billion a year U.S. family law industry," Sorge claims. Given the prominence of the $50 billion number, one would think that the film would explain it at some point. In fact, neither the film nor the official Divorce Corp. website make any effort to do so. At the time of this writing, the only statistics listed on the "Learn More" section of the website concern divorce rates for first marriages, second marriages, and third marriages. A graphic posted to the film's Facebook page simply states, "Each year our government will help transfer $50 billion from the middle class into the pockets of wealthy individuals in the divorce industry," without further explanation.

So, where does the $50 billion figure come from?

Using some numbers from Divorce Corp. itself, we can speculate as to how Sorge might have reached the $50 billion figure. Per the film, the average contested divorce costs $50,000, a number that some are questioning:

Even if the $50,000 figure is accurate, it is probably fair to assume that this is a mean average, not a median. We know that there were approximately 1 million divorces and annulments in the United States in 2011, and presumably a similar number in 2013. (The CDC does not have data for California, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, and Minnesota; hence the rounding up from 877,000 to approximately 1 million.) So, if EVERY divorce and annulment in the United States is contested, then Americans are paying $50 billion per year to get divorced.

However, we know that many divorces and annulments are not contested. (Unfortunately, I was unable to find exact numbers, and it appears that many courts do not keep statistics on contested vs. uncontested divorce, perhaps due to the difficulty of discerning between the two.) Moreover, in Massachusetts, a great many litigated divorces include at least one pro se (self-represented) litigant, a fact that would significantly reduce the average cost of divorce, if it is not already included in the calculations.

In short, the $50 billion figure is not particularly plausible if we look only at direct costs to divorcing couples. We are left to speculate as to where the difference comes from. Did Sorge include the salaries of family law judges and other court employees? I certainly hope not. Family law judges preside over many more issues than just divorce, such as adoptions, guardianships, and child support enforcement – not to mention a host of out-of-wedlock parenting disputes. To include judges' salaries as part of the "divorce industry," one would have to tease out the percentage attributable to divorces, an exceedingly onerous proposition.

To be clear, I am not accusing Sorge of lying about the $50 billion number – he surely reached it by some means that makes sense to him – and in any event, I am certain that the total annual cost of divorce in the United States is astronomical. However, to the extent that Sorge presents Divorce Corp. as a documentary and relies on statistics to support his arguments, those statistics ought to be clearly substantiated, if not in the film itself, then at least on the film's website. 

Question 2. How did Sorge determine that alimony increased by 30% from 1993-2013?

As far as I know, the only readily accessible and reliable sources of information about total alimony receipts are federal and state income tax filings. (Raw IRS data are available here.) But tax returns for 2013 have not yet been processed; so how does Sorge know the total amount of alimony paid in 2013? Surely he did not review each and every divorce judgment. This number, too, requires explanation.

Question 3. Is there a proven causal relationship between fatherless homes and societal dysfunction?

At one point in Divorce Corp., the narrator (Dr. Drew Pinsky) rattles off a series of statistics about what purportedly happens to children of fatherless homes. Sorge uses these numbers to make a case for shared parenting being the default after divorce, as opposed to the more typical arrangement where one parent (usually the mother) is the primary physical custodian. Based on postings on the official Divorce Corp. Facebook page, I gather that the statistics used in the film come from this infographic published by the National Fatherhood Initiative.

The problem with relying on these figures will be apparent to anybody who has taken a basic course in sociology, statistics, biology, or just about any evidence-based field of study: correlation is not causation.

Let us consider an alternative explanation. The very first statistic in the infographic is that fatherless children are at a 4x greater risk of poverty. We know that poverty is strongly correlated with a whole host of societal and developmental problems. For example, the "crack baby epidemic" was recently determined to actually be a result of poverty, not in utero exposure to crack cocaine. The debilitating effects of poverty are a constant source of frustration for eugenics proponents who keep trying to claim that minority groups are intellectually inferior.

Looking at the infographic, one sees a long list of attributes that are strongly correlated with (note that I do not say caused by) poverty: teen pregnancybehavioral problemsabuse and neglect ("[p]overty is the single best predictor of child abuse and neglect"), infant mortalitydrug and alcohol abuseincarcerationobesitycrime, and dropping out of high school.

It is true that single mothers with dependents are the poorest demographic in America, but research suggests that the lack of a father is not itself to blame for the list of ailments above, but rather the lack of income. From the same article:

Confounding variables, such as income and social class, explain a large portion of the negative findings. When income is considered, substantially fewer differences arise between the intellectual development, academic achievement, and behavior of children in single-parent and two-parent families. Lack of income has been identified as the single most important factor in accounting for the differences in children from various family forms (Casion, 1982; Lindblad-Goldberg, 1989; Amato & Keith, 1991).

The article (which cites sources, unlike Sorge) goes on to explain:

Mother-only families are more likely to be poor because of the lower earning capacity of women, inadequate public assistance and child care subsidies, and lack of enforced child support from nonresidential fathers.

Thus, the data that I found – and I admit that I did not do a particularly rigorous search – do not seem to support Sorge's argument that shared custody is needed to save children from the fates described. Rather, the problem appears to be primarily financial: single women need income parity, increased public assistance (as they have in Sweden – more on that in a later post), and increased financial support from fathers.

Lest there be any confusion, I do think there is a systemic imbalance in fathers' ability to spend time with their children; unfortunately, many families are not structured in a way that provides for an easy remedy. I left a job at a well-respected firm in Boston for that very reason. My wife and I currently have roughly equal time with our children, for which I am eternally grateful. I think our society should do more to encourage equal parenting at a socioeconomic level, as many other countries have done. But I will not pretend that my absence from my children's lives would plunge them into a desperate downward spiral of crime and drug abuse. All the evidence that I have seen suggests that if they were adequately provided for, they would turn out just fine. I would gladly welcome convincing evidence to the contrary. Until then, I fear that Sorge has simply regurgitated the facts supplied by the National Fatherhood Initiative, without questioning their validity.

Question 4. Does more divorce litigation lead to more funding of the family courts?

Our experience in Massachusetts suggests otherwise. I wonder whether other states are any better off.

Question 5. What percentage of complaints against family law judges are meritorious?

It is the nature of litigation that each side thinks their position is correct, perhaps nowhere moreso than in family disputes. Thus, it is virtually guaranteed that in every family law case that goes to judgment, at least one of the parties (and often both) will think the judge made a mistake – and some of them will be angry enough to lodge an official complaint. That does not necessarily mean the judge made a mistake, much less that the judge was corrupt or colluded with the family law professionals handling the case. Do we have any data indicating what percentage of complaints against family law judges are meritorious? More to the point, are there any such numbers to which Sorge would lend any credence?

What more?

There are doubtless other important questions that will be raised as the conversation continues, both in publications and across social media. For my part, the final two articles in my review will focus on (1) what actually happens in Sweden and (2) how we can meaningfully reform the U.S. family court system. Meanwhile, I do hope Sorge will be so kind as to provide additional details about the research behind his arguments.

UPDATE 1/29/14: I have tweeted a request for supporting information to @divorcecorp; I will update this page if I get a reply.