Alimony Laws are Sexist

Compare these two cases side by side:

1) A man is married to a female physician for over a decade. He does some coaching and consulting, but is largely a stay-at-home dad. His youngest is about to go off to college. He and his wife go through a tumultuous no-fault divorce. After several years of legal back-and-forth, the wife agrees to pay him alimony for a few years (she didn’t want to pay a dime), only because her attorney makes it clear to her that she will have to pay something. It is clear from the get-go that the man will never receive permanent alimony, even though if their genders were flipped and the female were the spouse with the lesser income, she would almost certainly receive permanent alimony in this state based on the length of the marriage and the difference in income. The discrepancy between the income of the man and the income of his wife is huge at the time of their divorce, the woman earning much more than the man.

2) Last year my husband earned less than his ex-wife when you include the alimony she receives as part of her income (as you must, because it is.) He testified to this in court with supporting documentation, but got imputed to him $7000 a month and ordered to pay $1650 a month in permanent alimony. At the time of their divorce, also a no-fault divorce, the discrepancy in income was significantly less than in the case above, and currently, the ex-wife is earning more than he is.

If the purpose of alimony is to allow the lesser earning spouse to maintain a lifestyle he or she became accustomed to during the marriage, then there is a serious problem with the application of that law across genders. There are so many problems with this as the basis for the award of alimony that it’s difficult to know where to start:

  1. For starters, this is usually a legal fiction from the get-go. If you are maintaining two separate residences, but the lower earning spouse is supposed to keep the same lifestyle, the higher earning spouse (in most cases the man) will suffer a cut in lifestyle. My husband lived in some questionable apartments to provide his ex-wife with a house (which he did gladly, because his children lived there).
  2. Alimony makes sense for a period of time, for example a period as long as the couple was married. You should be given a leg-up the same length of time you were married (periodic/rehabilitative alimony), during which you figure out how to move forward in a responsible way.
  3. Permanent alimony is particular egregious in cases where the higher earning spouse experiences a change in circumstances but no change in alimony. If my husband and his ex-wife were still married and his business had suffered the way it has, then they would have both had to adjust to the lower income accordingly. How can it be that when you are divorced, you are obligated to pay a fixed alimony forever when no one is guaranteeing you a fixed income?!!!
  4. As we see in the two cases above, permanent alimony is really about something else beneath the surface, anyway. You will be hard-pressed to convince me that the earning power imputed to a man, whether he is actually earning the amount imputed to him or not, comes from anything other than the assumption that the value of a man is to earn money outside of the home, and the value of a woman is to produce children and fulfill domestic duties within the home. While this has no longer been the way roles are distributed, not for decades, the laws still imply that women need to be taken care of financially. These days, both spouses have an expectation that they will do better financially as a married couple than each would separately, and each is disappointed in this expectation when the marriage fails. Why then, is the disappointment of this expectation purely the man’s to bear?

This is where the argument to change sexist alimony laws has to go. It is insulting to women, more of whom go to college than men, who are demanding that the glass ceiling be shattered, who wanted to be treated as equals. The law needs to stop treating women like children.

My husband’s duty to pay his ex-wife $1650/ month supersedes–in the eyes of the law–his duty to pay for his oldest daughter’s college education. How an that be? We cannot pay for both.

~Wanda

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16 Comments

  1. PhiloPsycho says:

    What came to mind in reading your last paragraph is that there seems to be this hidden assumption in the judge’s mind that the ex-wife is going to use the money for the children’s benefit. Because, you know, all women are like mamma animals who will instinctively provide for their offspring. She *must* be saving the surplus for their college education! Yey, essentialism. 😛

    I think it’s time for a 2nd Wives opinion column on sexism and alimony from a feminist viewpoint in the local newspaper 😉 Even if you get an outraged response, at least you’ll have people’s attention!

    • Wanda says:

      Hi PhiloPsycho,
      There is at any rate the sense that the woman needs the money for the home/kids and that although there is no expectation that she be a good steward of her finances, others should provide capital for her and she does not have to take extra jobs, although we do. It is simply baffling. This summer is about researching where these assumptions come from, so I can begin writing about them to begin to turn public sentiment. Local papers, journal articles, smart women’s magazines, perhaps The Huffington Post. :) I am open to suggestions about where to place articles, both digital and print. Would love to hear any ideas about where to publish. Thinking I need to learn to tweet. . .

      • PhiloPsycho says:

        Write to local legislators and judges? They’re the ones who have the power to do something. Citing case law from other states that do not grant permanent alimony would boost your argument. I bet you could get a *lot* of men and older women (likely who have gone through this) on your side.

        I wonder whether the intent behind limited-alimony laws in other states is less feminist and more to protect men? I suppose the end result is just as beneficial, in the end, though.

        A good first step for the legislature would be to shorten the no-fault divorce separation period from 1 year to a few months. It is so difficult (read: expensive) to prove spousal abuse, infidelity, or substance abuse that so few pursue that route, anyway.

        I look forward to reading anything you publish. I read The Free Thinker and Ms. magazine often, and even though they aren’t local publications, they tend to tackle feminist/gender issues, and I have never seen them publish anything related to this topic.

        • Wanda says:

          It seems that in some of the states that have successfully reformed their alimony laws, there’s a recognition that the laws don’t reflect the realities of working husbands and wives and that both are ultimately disadvantaged by the old laws. Obviously, the days are long gone when it made sense for men to pay alimony because women lost whatever property they brought into the marriage when they married but also because there were no jobs for women which would allow them to sustain themselves post-divorce. Family is all about what message is being sent to society through case law, and currently, the message being sent it that women bear no financial responsibility for themselves after a divorce. As this is not good for society moving forward and provides no incentive or possibility for the parties to get on with their lives, it’s an argument you see for change. At the same time, I’m not sure that many of the lawyers and judges in the family court system want the change. They benefit from the entanglements that the nebulous alimony laws get divorcees into. If alimony laws were governed by the same kind of clear-cut calculations that child-support is in this state, then there wouldn’t be the need to return to court, hoping for a more favorable ruling from a judge. The discretions allowed each judge in these cases is enormous.

          As for publishing, I have to do my homework this summer, but you are right that Ms. might be a good venue. The problem there will be the generation older than mine–they may want to (understandably) protect women who raised children and stayed home and were married for forty years and then got dumped for a trophy wife.

          ~Wanda

          • PhiloPsycho says:

            True, and I can also see the systemic issues with the many, many women who never see child support or alimony (even when court-ordered). However, I think that anyone who is patient enough to consider the exceptions you’ve mentioned would agree that there need to be limits beyond the existing “until you find another man to support you.”

            Interestingly, I was watching the Senate DSS Oversight Committee hearings for the past several months, and there was a man who passionately argued (very well, in fact) that our problems aren’t just with DSS, but with the family courts being biased in favor of women. He is being forced to share custody with an unfit mother, simply because she is a woman who gave birth to their child. His was a custody issue, but the underlying sentiment about benevolent sexism being unfair was similar to yours. He has hired very good lawyers and exhausted his savings that could have put the child through college, and he still lost. One of the Senators took him very seriously, probably because it was related to child safety, but also because he was one of a very few who was willing to speak out against inherent sexism in the courts, at least in his case.

          • Wanda says:

            While there is definitely sexism inherent in the system (why do I hear Monty Python here–“Now we see the violence inherent in the system”; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvKIWjnEPNY&noredirect=1), at the same time, you do hear of women who don’t get the child-support or alimony they deserve all the time. It’s such an arbitrary system. Family court has been a real eye-opener. No wonder so many of the attorneys have alcohol problems. Not nearly as entertaining as Monty Python. . .
            ~Wanda

        • Wanda says:

          Also, you are right that change will only come through close work with legislators. In SC, there is a Representative on board. But we need support in both houses. It’s time to get loud.

          • PhiloPsycho says:

            I think you’re onto something about the arbitrary nature of the system. That makes it so much more difficult to fight, particularly if your case is an outlier. I see this a lot in my work with law enforcement, which is an arm of the same system. Some officers automatically believe the woman and press charges against her abuser; others will respond to 911 calls at a home multiple times and never press charges, or charge both abuser and victim (god forbid she tried to defend herself). It undermines public confidence in the system.

            In a post you mentioned “the spirit of the law.” When sexism is inherent in the laws, it’s difficult for judges to be fair in individual case decisions. When the laws are neutral with regard to gender of the plaintiffs, it’s dangerous for judges to have so much power to interpret laws as they see fit, because judges are not without their own biases. It is difficult to spot which is the problem in your case, probably because of how arbitrary family court decisions can be :(

          • Wanda says:

            Your work sounds soooo frustrating (and important). Unfortunately, our case really isn’t an outlier (there are so many men overpaying alimony and as a result not able to retire), but at the same time, women get screwed over by the system as well. In states where alimony reform has been successful, I’m not even sure the success stems from a recognition of the underlying assumptions that women should be supported until they find another man. The reading I’ve been doing is clear about the law reflecting assumptions we make that often lag behind the reality of social structures. I can’t help but feel that our particular judge couldn’t separate himself at all from sexist assumptions. And the ex played them up, of course.

          • PhiloPsycho says:

            Sorry, you’re probably right. I think I’ve just been exposed to a particular population (hovering around or far below the poverty line).

            I know a lot of people believe that bad people eventually get what’s coming to them, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case, especially when large institutions are backing them.

  2. Christine says:

    The whole concept of permanent and indeed any alimony cannot be justified as divorce by its very definition means a separation of an entity into separate and independent parts. Why one human being should have to pay future earnings to an able bodied partner when they are no longer together is ridiculous. Pay the person what is due to them at the point of separation and that should be the end of it.

    • Wanda says:

      Hi Christine,
      I agree. Divvy it up and move on. I do think, though–and this is coming from someone who avoided this situation like the plague–that in cases where women are in their 20s or 30s and have a child or two or three and agree to stay home while a husband finishes his education and begins a career, that the women (upon getting a divorce) should then receive alimony for the amount of time she was married (maybe not to exceed 10 years?) to allow her to finish her education and launch a career. This should be the case if the stay-at-home parent is male, as well. That said, there should be clear guidelines about what percentage of the higher earning ex-partner’s income can be tapped for alimony. And as for permanent alimony, that is simply economic servitude. Period.

      If you are writing from the UK, what are the alimony laws like where you live?
      Thanks for your comments!
      ~Wanda

  3. Robert Smith says:

    I really liked what you were writing, but your second-to-last paragraph absolutely killed any respect I had for this article.

    How in the flying fuck did you manage to make this all about women?

    “It is insulting to women, more of whom go to college than men, who are demanding that the glass ceiling be shattered, who wanted to be treated as equals. The law needs to stop treating women like children.”

    Um… how about the fact that it is ruinous to men who experience a change in their income but still have to pay their ex-spouses for the rest of your lives? Are you seriously so self-absorbed that you would make a problem that financially ruins men and make it about how women are hurt because they’re stereotyped? If you really want to garner any admiration from me, you should address the real problem, the sexist (toward women AND men) alimony system — not the fact that it perpetuates gender roles.

    • Wanda says:

      Dear Mr. Smith,
      Do you always try to persuade people to think like you do by insulting them? Did you stop to consider that I might hold the position that archaic alimony laws are sexist and also agree that these laws are everything else you say they are, including ruinous, both financially and emotionally to the person paying the alimony? These are not exclusive positions. Sometimes the only way to get laws changed is to make people aware of the out-dated ideas that undergird them; in this case, permanent alimony clearly stems from the belief that women cannot take care of themselves. I hear this very sentiment from legislators and family court lawyers, who think the system is fine the way it is. As the public becomes educated about the role of women in most families today, they will come to see that what made sense in 1950 no longer does, that some payees have a free ride while the payors live under huge financial strain, that women don’t need permanent alimony to be financially stable. Isn’t that what you want to see happen? Just because I created a post from one perspective does not mean I do not hold other complementary positions. In fact, I am very active in alimony reform because the burden on the payor is crushing. For the record, I am not in the habit of seeking admiration from people who don’t know me, don’t bother to find out my position, and who don’t understand that in this case perception of gender roles lead to laws which do very real harm. The stereotyping is holding back reform efforts. Gender is one piece of this, not the entire issue. I do, however, appreciate the use of the word “flying” paired with the profanity. Very colorful.
      ~Wanda

  4. PhiloPsycho says:

    Intersectionalism is important. I am as worried about existing alimony laws as I am about the unintended consequences of reform in an area that has a high degree of sexism (against women), racism, and class division, and such a poor social support system. And yes, women tend to the be the primary caregivers of children and aging family members. All struggles are not equal.

    Our legislators do not represent all people equally. They are from upper middle to upper classes. They protect their own.

    • Wanda says:

      Hi PhiloPsycho,
      This reply is so overdue it’s ridiculous, but at the same time, I can allay your fears in a way I couldn’t have when you originally responded to the post. The laws proposed in SC (there are concrete bills out there now that hadn’t yet been created when we last talked) to reform alimony would protect stay-at-home moms and allow the judges a great deal of discretion. Now, the fact that many women don’t receive alimony in the first place, either because they aren’t married to the father of their kids or because the father doesn’t earn more than the mother is not something any alimony laws can rectify. I have always said that alimony is fair and that many women don’t get alimony who should, but that permanent alimony, especially when you have been married less than ten years, is simply wrong. That is what reform is looking to change. The bills that were introduced into the Senate this year and will likely be reintroduced next year are well written with the advice of experienced family court lawyers with the express intent of avoiding the kind of unintended consequences you rightly raise concerns about. What we have now is a system that is so murky that divorcing parties feel if they don’t pay a particular set of lawyers $15,000 up front, they won’t have a good outcome. This group doesn’t want reform. But clearer guidelines for judges would make divorce proceedings less contentious and allow both parties to prepare for the coming decades and retirement. And, like I said, a woman who has stayed home with children could expect an alimony reward that reflects that. Permanent alimony should be reserved for the exceptions, not the rule. And those who already have divorce orders would experience no change, unless they went back to court.
      ~Wanda

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