WASHINGTON — A telltale sign of US economic recovery: the divorce rate is on the rise, after falling sharply in 2008 and 2009.

"People were afraid they were going to lose their jobs so they were very cautious about getting a divorce because you have to split your assets," said Linda Lea Viken, the president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Viken said the divorce rate dropped 24 percent in 2008 and 57 percent in 2009, but started inching upwards towards the end of last year.

"It's starting to improve," she added. "It's pretty obvious by talking to people."

According to figures provided by the Academy, the United States has the world's highest divorce rate, with 4.95 divorces for every 1,000 inhabitants. The marriage rate is 9.8 for every 1,000 people, according to the US Census Bureau.

Traditionally, in periods of economic downturn, there is less divorce and fewer separations, divorce lawyers say. But there are also fewer marriages and people often hold off on having a child.

A Pew Research poll taken at the end of 2009, when the US economy was slowly recovering from its 19-month recession, found that some 15 percent of adults younger than 35 years old had postponed getting married because of the recession while 14 percent said they had delayed having a baby.

The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control show a sharp drop in the divorce rate between 2007 and 2009. In New York state, for example, the number of divorces dropped from 51,626 to 41,899; in Florida, there were 78,357 divorces in 2007 and 73,860 in 2009; and in Pennsylvania, the numbers dropped from 32,293 to 25,690.

Viken noted that divorce can cost as little as a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the value of the property that must be split up and, if there are children, the contentiousness of the custody settlement.

The potential price tag, she said, kept some marriages together, even while they were falling apart, forcing some couples to live in separate floors of their own house.

"One got the upstairs, the other got the downstairs," said Viken. "There were quite a few people who did that because they were afraid to spend the money to rent a place and they didn't know what they were going to get out of the divorce."

For Mary Anne Decaria, a lawyer in the western state of Nevada, which has been hit especially hard by the housing crisis, the economy is still sputtering, but the divorce rate has nonetheless started to rise, in part because people no longer have the patience to wait.

"In my practice, what I have seen is that for a short period of time after the economy started going down hill, people who wanted to be divorced held off in the hope that the economy would improve."

People also delayed their divorces because they believed housing prices would eventually rebound. But, said Decaria, with many mortgages still worth more than the value of the underlying home, "it makes no economic sense to wait for the housing value to go up before they divorce," she said. "That would take years and years."