When the Divorce Court Leads to a Jail Cell

Like many of the one million Americans who go through a divorce each year, Marvin Singer is indignant, depressed, financially stressed and convinced that he is a victim of judicial abuse.

Unlike all but a tiny number, Mr. Singer, 71, is also in jail.

Mr. Singer, a tall, thin, bent man with bushy gray hair and a cane, has been at the Nassau County Correctional Facility here since Oct. 24. A name tag identifies him as that rarest of jailbirds: a “civil inmate.”

According to the official record, Mr. Singer was jailed for refusing a judge’s order to pay his ex-wife’s lawyer $100,000 — about half of what he owes for her legal representation during their six-year tug-of-war over marital assets.

According to Mr. Singer, he is an inmate in a modern-day debtor’s prison.

“In this country, you’re not supposed to go to jail for owing money,” said Mr. Singer, a real estate lawyer who may or may not have retired, depending on which side of this bitter struggle one sits. “I haven’t hurt anyone. I haven’t robbed anyone. How could this be?”

There is no record of how many people travel a path from divorce court to jail. Administrators of the matrimonial courts in New York and other states track how many divorces are filed, and how many are resolved, but not how many litigants in irreconcilable marriages end up in irreconcilable rows with the judge.