The Splitter State: Nevada’s 14.2 divorced persons rate highest in U.S.

For nearly 20 years, Nevada was the fastest-growing state in the nation.

But just who was moving here?

Divorcés, it appears.

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau says Nevada has the highest proportion of divorced people in the nation with 14.2 percent of the population listed as divorced in 2008.

That does not mean Nevada had the highest divorce rate — the proportion of people who went through a divorce in the past year. On that measure, the state ranked eighth among men and 22nd among women in 2008.

Experts said Nevada — and especially Las Vegas — is a unique place that probably appeals to a unique blend of people.

"We don’t necessarily attract the traditional groups of people," said Margaret Pickard, who teaches in the cooperative parenting program at UNLV’s division of educational outreach.

Pickard, who specializes in counseling divorced and divorcing couples, explained that Las Vegas attracts people who want to work in the entertainment and hospitality industries.

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 are in the leisure and hospitality industry.

While careful not to tarnish everyone who works in a strip club or casino, Pickard noted that many of the jobs in those and related industries aren’t always conducive to family life.

"We’re fun," she said of Las Vegas’ reputation. "We’re free. It’s a great place to kind of let yourself go."

The city has also taken on a reputation — real or imagined, no one’s sure — of being a great place to start over.

Jon Wardlaw, a demographer with Clark County, crunches numbers and studies the people here for a living.

But Wardlaw said there doesn’t seem to be any hard data available that would show exactly why Nevada has such a high proportion of divorced people.

He said the data do show that people generally move here because of jobs, largely in the hospitality industry.

He said the "starting over" theory seems instinctively correct.

Robert Potts, the assistant director at the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV, agreed that the starting over theory makes sense. But he said the only way to be sure would be to pore over obscure Census Bureau micro data, which nobody appears to have done.

Other experts blamed sex, drugs and the rock-‘n’-roll culture that makes this place what it is. Although our divorce rate is not the highest in the nation, it is still higher than average.

"There’s a lot of temptation, so to speak, because it’s constantly in front of you," said Frank Lin, Las Vegas 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.

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.

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.

"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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Richard Lake at or 702-383-0307.


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