Nevada's 14.2 divorce rate highest in nation

RENO - Nevada had the highest divorce rate of any state in the nation last year with 14.2 percent of the population having been through one, according to new figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Experts point to alcohol, gambling and the overall 24-hour environment filled with dancers, showgirls and brothels as likely contributors to the high rate across the state, including Reno - once known as the "Divorce Capital of the World."

"There's a lot of temptation, so to speak, because it's constantly in front of you," said Frank Lin, a divorce attorney whose firm Lin & Associates uses the phone number 702-DIVORCE.

Thomas Harrison, professor and chairman of the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, said in many cases both spouses work in the entertainment industry on shifts that keep them apart.

"I think that the 24-hour city structures incredible stress upon families, and this would be especially true if couples engage in split-shift work arrangements," Harrison said.

"This, obviously, leaves little time for communication between partners. If there are children, then the available time is cut down even more," he said.

According to 2008 figures from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 30 percent of private sector workers in Nevada work in the leisure and hospitality industry.

In addition, Nevada's laws make it easier to get divorced compared with other states. Couples need only live in the Silver State six weeks before their marriage can be dissolved, while other states require longer residency and a cooling-off period.

George Flint has a different take. A former Assemblies of God minister from Oregon, he now runs the Chapel of the Bells wedding chapel in Reno and serves as a lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association.

He said the infamous Mustang Ranch brothel on the outskirts of Reno "probably saves more marriages" than it ruins. He also said national statistics such as these are skewed in Nevada because 40 million tourists annually visit the state with a population of less than 3 million.

"Those divorce rates are based in large part on the non-Nevadans who come here to set up six weeks of residency to get a divorce," Flint said. "If they establish residency, they are considered Nevadans at that time."

"I get calls every single week from people who call and say they need to get a divorce, how do they go about doing it in Nevada," he said.

"It's the same with our smoking and drinking consumption rates. They are tremendously high compared to Utah and other states. But they don't reflect the 40 million tourists who come here and drive the whole thing," he said.

Historian Guy Rocha said Nevada backed into the title of "Divorce Capital of the World" when the six-month waiting period typical in the West at the turn of the century was extended to a year in most other states.

By the 1920s, one Reno boarding house was catering almost exclusively to divorce-seekers - an anomaly that earned the Nystrom Guest House a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

In 1931, Gov. Fred Balzar signed legislation that cut the waiting period from three months to six weeks in an effort to draw more people to Reno and help jump start the sour economy in the midst of the Great Depression.

It worked. More than 32,000 divorces were granted in Washoe County from 1929-39 at a time Reno's population totaled only about 18,000.

The Second Earl Russell, a member of the British House of Lords, was one of the first celebrities of sorts to come to Reno for a quickie divorce - a practice that became especially popular with movie stars and the rich and famous trying to avoid publicity.

"It was literally kind of a revolving door for people in Hollywood for awhile," said Mella Harmon, former curator of the Nevada Historical Society who wrote her master's thesis on the 1930s divorce trade.

"It really died out by 1970 because other states were liberalizing their divorce laws and the whole idea of going some place else for a migratory divorce sort of went the way of the horse and buggy," she said.

Harmon said she suspects Nevada's current high divorce rate is tied to the state's lifestyle "and the other sort of sociological problems we have here with gambling addictions and all that other stuff."

"It is tempting to think there is still a little of the old reputation, but I don't know," she said.

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Associated Press writer Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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