SA may have some way to go to match the US, where for every 100 new marriages there are 38 divorces. But we are catching up fast, according to alarming data just released by Stats SA.

Couples dreaming of a life of marital bliss are becoming a rarer breed. There was a 26% fall in new civil marriages from a peak of 186,522 in 2008 to 138,627 in 2015. At this pace, the number of civil marriages will fall below 100,000 within six years.

Customary marriages have also nosedived, falling from a peak of 20,259 in 2007 to 3,467 in 2015.

By contrast, married couples calling it quits is on the rise, with the number of civil divorces increasing by 20.4% from a low of 20,980 in 2011 to 25,260 in 2015.

White couples were the most prone to divorce, with 49.7% of failed marriages in 2015 having lasted nine years or less. Black couples were not far behind, with 48.5% of marriages having failed within nine years.

Blacks have also ousted whites as drivers of a rising divorce rate. In 2015 blacks accounted for 42.9% of divorces and whites 26.1% compared with 24% and 40%, respectively, a decade earlier.

This trend could just be getting into its stride. "Over the next 10 years I believe we will see a huge increase in the number of blacks divorcing," says Pretoria attorney Riëtte Oosthuizen.

The key reason, she continues, is a growing black middle class which is fast shifting away from community of property marriages in which couples share assets and liabilities to antenuptial marriage contracts in which assets and liabilities are clearly defined.

Reasons for divorce are many and varied, but a number stand out. "Adultery, abuse and alcohol are big problems," says Cape Town attorney Bertus Preller.

"Couples with financial problems are the biggest factor in my practice," says Oosthuizen. "Adultery also plays a big role. The advent of social media has made it hard to have a fling and get away with it."

Johannesburg attorney Hugh Raichlin puts another slant on it. "In this age of instant gratification many people are no longer prepared to take the time to try to sort their problems out," he says.

In the actual process of divorce in-court battles are something of a rarity. Preller says all but 10% of divorces are settled out of court.

But it can be a touch and go affair. "It is fair to say most divorces are settled on the steps of the court," says Somerset West lawyer Dalene Kuhn.

On the issue of divorce costs, it is very much a case of asking: how long is a piece of string?

An uncontested divorce costs between R3,000 and R5,000, says Kuhn. But it can become extremely costly if the action ends in the supreme court where advocates come into the picture.

"Daily fees for a junior counsel [advocate] are around R15,000 while for a senior counsel it can be as high as R70,000," says Kuhn.

"To have a senior counsel involved will run up costs of at least R250,000 for a five-day hearing," says Oosthuizen. "You also have to factor in fees of specialists such as auditors, property valuators and psychologists."

And there is no guarantee a court hearing will be over in a week. "Some divorces drag on for years," says Oosthuizen.

thomass@fm.co.za

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