The Helpless Housewife

Posted on May 27, 2013 by Katie Carter

Time Article Predicts the End of Permanent Alimony

According to the article, “The End of Alimony,” by Belinda Luscombe, published in Time magazine, the idea of alimony, that a husband should pay to support a wife he has cast aside, has existed, apparently, since Hammurabi. The idea existed in medieval Europe, even though divorce was not legally recognized at the time, and has also surfaced in our society. Some people say that now is the time for reform.

How does spousal support work in Virginia?

In Virginia, there is no specific formula to determine spousal support, so spousal support awards can vary drastically between one woman and the next. Though permanent spousal support is typically reserved for women who were coming out of long-term marriages, there is nothing in the statute that requires that it only be awarded as a result of a long-term marriage. Spousal support can be difficult to predict, and it’s always tricky part of negotiation or litigation.

How does Virginia compare to other states?

The rules are different in other states. In Kansas, for example, alimony payments are limited to ten years and one month. In New Jersey, the court can consider behavior that “shocks the conscience” when lessening or increasing a spousal support award. In Utah, spousal support cannot be awarded for longer than the duration of the marriage.

Why is alimony under fire?

It’s impossible to deny: the world is changing, and so is a woman’s place in it. No longer the helpless housewife, women today are graduating college, scoring top tier jobs, and, in some cases, out-earning their husbands. Though women still do typically earn less than men, things are definitely changing.

Before now, opportunities for women weren’t as good as they are now. No one is arguing that women have completely equal opportunities with men, but things are better now than ever before in history. Supporters of modifying the rules about permanent spousal support argue that women are no longer the “helpless housewives” they were in previous generations. Women can get out and get jobs—good jobs—so there’s no reason for husband’s to be paying for their support for years and years after the marriage.

…Does that mean that permanent spousal support is doomed?

Are First Wives or Second Wives Winning the Spousal Support War?

Surprisingly, the people who are the most vehemently in support of modifying the laws regarding alimony are WOMEN. Specifically, these women are second wives.

Here’s the scenario that’s causing all the fuss: Woman meets man. Woman falls in love with man. Woman wants to marry man, only…man owes a third of his income to his first wife until one of them dies. That’s not cool.

And furthermore, what happens to second wife’s income if something happens to hubby, and his income is restricted? Should SHE be expected to foot the bill to support the first wife? And, if so, should she just not get married? That’s a pretty icky thought.

Still, it does seem that, in all fairness, the first wife came first. And studies have shown that the world is harder on women after divorce than it is on men. For example, recently divorced women are twice as likely as men to be in poverty. It also typically affects a woman’s health insurance. Not to mention, what happens if the first wife is older? If she was a stay-at-home mom during the marriage, for example, and was out of the job market for a number of years, she may find it difficult to obtain a well-paying position later in life.

Women are divided on this issue. Women who have stayed at home to raise their children, or otherwise cut back on their professional careers for the sake of their families, typically feel strongly that permanent spousal support should be an option, to help make up for the permanent disparities between the parties that will continue to exist long after the divorce. Professional career women, on the other hand, don’t understand why rehabilitative spousal support for a number of years isn’t enough to help get these women back on their feet and back into the workforce. It’s an ideological difference, based on fundamental belief systems. Each group of women believes strongly in her own position, and, as a result, we have this looming dispute over how much spousal support should be awarded, and for how long.

What Happens to Our Families if we Eliminate Permanent Spousal Support?

This isn’t just about the differences between the career woman and the stay at home mom. There are bigger social issues that affect the choices that we, as women, can make with regard to our families and our careers. Finding a balance has always been difficult, regardless of the specific path you choose to take, but having a specific decision forced on you because of the direction the law has taken is distasteful at best.

What do I mean? Well, if you knew on the day you got married that there was a chance your marriage could fail and, once it failed, even if that day was twenty or thirty years down the road, you’d have to get back on your feet financially without being able to depend on him for permanent financial support, would you choose to do things differently than if that were not the case?

The case for permanent spousal support

The problem is largely generational. The era where women had to be taken care of is over, but there are still many of us who would, if given the choice, like the opportunity to stay at home and raise our children ourselves, rather than sending them to grow up in daycare. Does that mean that, if the possibility of permanent spousal support is erased, we won’t be able to make those decisions for our families? Does that mean that women will always have to coldly calculate what they should be doing professionally so that they can support themselves later, just in case things don’t work out the way we hoped? In losing the possibility of permanent spousal support, we lose autonomy. We lose the right to choose for ourselves what’s best for us—and our families.

The case against permanent spousal support

On the other hand, if permanent spousal support is a possibility, where is the push for the first wife to ever try to support herself? If she knows she can permanently rely on the spousal support, why would she feel driven to seek separate employment? It doesn’t seem fair to expect a man to pay for years, sometimes longer than the actual marriage, for a woman who is otherwise capable of employment. Spousal support would also end if the woman remarried, so what happens to the women receiving spousal support who later develop a stable, romantic relationship with a man, but refuse to marry because it would disrupt their spousal support payments? So they are receiving support, presumably reaping some benefit of their newer relationship, and effectively thwarting the system by refusing to remarry. If ex-hubby remarries, though, his new wife could be responsible for paying support to the first wife.

Not to mention, alimony payments to an ex-spouse tie a person to a bad relationship. It’s a frequent and constant obligation that doesn’t allow old wounds to heal.

What kind of spousal support is reasonable?

Both sides of this argument are compelling. There has to be some sort of support system in place to help ex-wives, especially when their lack of lucrative prospects is due to deliberate decisions made during the marriage. After a period of time, any skills that the first wife could formerly boat of become outdated and irrelevant. Especially with the rise of technology, certain skill sets are often required for even the most basic employment—and these skill sets are constantly changing and evolving.

At the same time, it’s not fair that wife number two should have to pay, years and years later, for the breakdown of a relationship she had no part in. The first wife should have some sort of responsibility for securing her own financial well-being, and shouldn’t be able to thwart the system simply by remaining unmarried or refusing to cohabitate with a person who is, for all intents and purposes, like a spouse to her. As life expectancy has increased and people are more and more willing to be in a relationship without a legal commitment, the reality is that permanent spousal support awards are a daunting thing for the people who end up paying them. Certainly spousal support shouldn’t continue for decades after a marriage ends, right?

So, should permanent spousal support ever be a possibility? As a divorce attorney representing women only, I feel strongly that spousal support is a critical aspect of the divorce process for many women. Whether spousal support is permanent or not, it is always awarded to a woman based on her specific need; it’s not like these women are getting rich while their husbands slave away.

Married couples should be free to make the decisions they feel are best for their families. If that decision means that either party must stay at home to raise the children, that is a decision they should be free to make. Likewise, if the parties decide that they would both prefer to work and provide more economically to their families, it is a decision that they should be free to make. All decisions do, however, have consequences.

It’s difficult to predict what might happen to spousal support in the future. What’s reasonable? Well, like anything else, it’s probably a more middle of the road approach than this article suggests, and certainly not unilateral or retroactive abolishment of permanent spousal support. In Virginia, at least, permanent spousal support isn’t something that is awarded willy-nilly. It’s awarded in a case where a number of criteria are met, but specifically where one party has a need and the other has an ability to pay. When a judge determines spousal support, he (or she) will also look at the thirteen statutory factors affecting whether a person is entitled to receive spousal support is undertaken and the length of the marriage in question. It’s not easily granted, and it’s certainly not granted except under specific circumstances.

Probably over time, spousal support will move towards something a little more similar to child support, mostly to avoid the possibility of completely different awards being made to similarly situated women. A degree of predictability would probably be the best and solution for all parties, because it at least creates a uniform system that is transparent and easy to understand.

Is this the solution? Only time will tell.

Woman versus Woman

The article in Time magazine reports some unsurprising behavior between two women on opposite sides of the spousal support argument. One, a first wife, founded a “First Wives First Club” in opposition to the “Second Wives Club,” a group of women united in the belief that permanent alimony should be abolished. After she founded the group, women from the Second Wives Club posted her home address on the Internet, read through her the court file regarding her divorce, found pictures of her on a ski trip, and made hateful comments about her life choices. Worst of all, the Second Wives Club women provided the article’s author, Belinda Luscombe, with a notarized letter from the first wife’s grown daughter, which called her mother a gluttonous leach.

Not to be outdone, the first wife forwarded Ms. Luscombe an email accusing one of the second wives of being power-hungry within the Second Wives Club organization.

It’s impossible to predict how spousal support reform may affect current and future spousal support recipients in Virginia. There are, however, good women on either side of this debate, who are deserving of the money they have earned. The root of this problem is deeper than whether ideologically we agree with the idea of permanet spousal support. It’s about a deeply rooted dislike and mistrust of other women, particularly other women who are different from us.

This reminds me of the Sex and the City episode where, after Carrie and Aiden broke up, Carrie was trying to figure out how to buy her apartment, and makes a comment to Charlotte about how she didn’t have to buy her apartment because she got it in a settlement. “Oh, I PAID for that apartment,” Charlotte says aggressively. Ultimately, Charlotte sells her engagement ring to give Carrie a loan so that she can put a down payment on her apartment.

As women, we need to come together and be supportive of the different ways that life works out for each of us. On either side of this debate, we have women who have worked hard, and who are working hard to play the best game with the hand they’ve been dealt.

If you’re a career woman, imagine for a minute what it would feel like to be a fifty or sixty something woman with no actual real-life work experience. Imagine what it would be like to apply for job after job, only to be told that you don’t have the necessary skill set. Remember that these women are more likely than most to be in poverty, and have often lost their health insurance as a result of their divorces. Remember, too, that the spousal support guidelines in Virginia are not particularly generous.

If you’re an alimony recipient or a stay at home mom, imagine what it feels like to have to go to work and drop your children off at daycare every single day. Imagine how you’d feel if you had to hear from the day care worker that your child spoke her first word, lost her first tooth, or wrote her name for the first time—and you weren’t there. Imagine the strain and the pressure of the 9-5, the need to keep aggressively climbing that corporate ladder, and make impossibly huge student loan payments.

We all have our share of difficult experiences, and it certainly doesn’t make things any easier for anyone if we point fingers and blame the other for the problems we’re facing in our own lives.

This post is based on an article from Time, “The End of Alimony,” by Belinda Luscombe.