COVID-19 divorce


What is the effect of a year of lockdown on divorce statistics?

As we mark one year since the nation entered lockdown of some form or other, it’s inevitable that we feel called to reflect on the events and consequences of the past 12 months. A year ago we asked whether self-isolation and lockdown would make or break marriages. It was highly probably that the forced time together, and the absence of outside activities and social interaction, would in some relationships exacerbate problems that were already there. But we thought other couples might find the time together valuable and enjoyable…a break from lives overwhelmed with “busy-ness”. That may indeed have happened for some, but the latest statistics indicate a marked trend toward COVID-19 divorces.

COVID-19 divorce in South Africa

Although Stats SA has not yet compiled the official divorce statistics for 2020, there is anecdotal evidence that cases are up. Family lawyers all over the country are reporting an increase in divorce instructions. Some of this can be explained by the delay in these cases reaching legal action due to the enforced inactivity of Alert Levels 5 and 4. But the backlog appears to far exceed what might be expected purely from a few months of catching up.

The Department of Justice has reported an accumulation of civil cases, including divorce, in district and regional courts. In Limpopo alone, at the end of last year, there were 11,788 divorce matters outstanding, representing nearly half of all divorces filed in South Africa in 2018. Either there’s something very strange going on in Limpopo, or we can expect to see a surge in the national rate for 2020.

And in the rest of the world

In the UK, divorce applications are soaring. British law firm Stewarts saw a 122% increase in enquiries between July and October last year, compared with the same period in 2019. A rise in online searches for advice on how to end a relationship has been recorded by a leading citizen’s advice organisation. News reports from Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark all say the same thing, and even the Swedes, who did not endure a hard lockdown, are breaking up in their droves. China also reports a rise in divorces, though Korea seems to be bucking the trend.

In the US, a company called Legal Templates, which provides legal documents online, reported a 34% increase in sales of divorce documents by April last year, compared to the same period the previous year. And that was when the world had only been locked down for a couple of months! Couples who had very recently married represented 20% of sales. Marry in haste…repent in haste?

Some reports from the US indicate the opposite…a decline in divorces, citing the high cost of legal action in the US as a factor keeping couples out of the courts, if not together. Sharp declines in house prices also make it uneconomical to sell the marital home, and the economic downturn makes it hard for one spouse to buy out the other. In a country as large and as diverse as the US, it’s hard to glean the whole picture. But globally the trend is clear – lockdown has been hard on marriage.

Factors contributing to COVID-19 divorce

We’ve written before about “divorce season”. It is common to see a surge in divorce actions in January, after the enforced time together over the festive season. This is a common phenomenon here and in other countries. Lockdown went on far longer than the normal December holidays, and brought with it additional pressures.

Not only were couples thrust together 24/7, they lost access to support networks made up of family, friends, sports clubs, church groups, etc. Yes, we Zoomed, but after the initial novelty wore off, it became very clear that virtual contact was a poor substitute for social contact. Where previously one could let off steam with friends, during lockdown a partner’s annoying habits reached new levels of irritation.

Many households faced economic pressure. Where jobs were lost or hours reduced, the struggle to make ends meet put relationships under strain. Children were around all the time, making noise and needing supervision and distraction. When parents aren’t 100% aligned on child care issues, this can create tension in in a marriage.

Domestic violence has also, sadly, increased, due to all these factors and to the difficult social and psychological environment everyone has endured. Applications for protection orders have risen, and many of these will result in divorce instructions.

More COVID-19 divorce cases brought by women

What is unusual about the current wave of divorces is the number being initiated by women. Here in South Africa, DIY Legal, a firm offering DIY uncontested divorce, has reported that 62% of divorce cases registered after hard lockdown were brought by women. In the UK, Stewarts recorded 76% of new cases set in motion by female spouses, compared with 60% a year ago.

An explanation for this could be that during lockdown, even where both parents were employed and coping with work-from-home scenarios, the majority of the child care, home schooling, and housework still fell on women. There have been a number of studies of working parents’ lives during COVID-19 which all point to this outcome. Where a woman might have been prepared to shoulder more of the domestic burden pre-COVID-19, perhaps because her husband earned more or had a longer commute, when they were both at home she expected more sharing of responsibilities. When the reality turned out to be very different, it was the last straw for many women.

Accelerating the inevitable

A year ago we wrote, “The current crisis will probably not change the inevitable; it will only accelerate it. If a couple is destined to divorce, confinement may make that apparent sooner than it otherwise would have been.” Those words look prescient now, though looking back, it was an obvious outcome.

If you want to discuss your options

If COVID-19 has driven your relationship to the brink, and you want to discuss your options, we are a Cape Town law firm with extensive experience of helping couples divorce with dignity. If you decide divorce is the best thing for your family, contact family lawyer Simon Dippenaar on 086 099 5146 or email

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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