There is a common societal misconception that divorcing women everywhere are cackling and scheming together about all the various ways that they can get as much of the money, property, retirement and other assets from their husbands as possible during the divorce. There’s even a nice little slur created specifically for these women: Gold diggers. Probably most of this money will be spent lavishly in tanning, nail, and hair salons, and the rest will be spent on fancy dinners, wine, shopping for designer labels, and social activities that take these women out of the home and away from their children.
In my experience as a divorce and custody attorney representing women exclusively, this is not the case. In fact, I have never seen a case where the wife was awarded such an exorbitant sum that she felt free to place her pleasure above the needs of the family. In Virginia (I can’t speak for any other state), the guideline numbers for child and spousal support aren’t particularly generous. In divorce law, there’s often not a lot of extra money to go around anyway. Husband and Wife have the same amount of money after the divorce that they did before the divorce—it’s just divided in two and spent maintaining to separate households. And that’s before any attorney’s fees are paid.
In cases where spousal support is awarded, it is usually done because one party’s earning potential is dramatically lower than the other’s. In shorter-term marriages, spousal support is generally only awarded on a temporary basis. In mid-length marriages, spousal support is normally awarded for half the length of the marriage. It’s not until you get into long-term marriages (normally considered marriages of twenty years or more in length) that you start talking about permanent spousal support even being an option. (In Virginia, permanent means that the recipient spouse will receive spousal support until either party dies, until she remarries, or until she cohabitates in a relationship like marriage for a period over one year.)
Is this unfair? Certainly there are cases where the law was applied and produced some inequitable result. In my experience, though, there are many, many more women who desperately need it than there are women who are receiving it. There are more still who refuse to ask for the guideline amount because they don’t want to take anything away from their husbands, and because they don’t want to be perceived as the kind of woman who takes a man “to the cleaner’s.” These negative stereotypes are unfair, but they seem to be pretty prevalent in society.
Women sit in my office every day and fuss over how they’ll make ends meet. Whether they have to ask for spousal support or not, it’s never something that they do vindictively or callously. In almost every case I’ve seen, the woman asking for support feels like she has to swallow her pride to do it. Ultimately, we have to make choices in our divorces based on what’s realistic—and survival without spousal support is all but impossible for many women. The truth is that many of us do make choices to sacrifice our education or our careers for the sake of our families, and sometimes those choices bite us later. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a woman say, “I just never thought this would happen to us.”
When I have the opportunity to talk to women about spousal support, I encourage them to think of it as a means towards achieving financial independence later. Use the money to go back to school, get recertified, or get technical training that will enable you to be independent and successful on your own terms. If your case supports an award for spousal support, there’s nothing wrong with taking it. You should consider what you’ll need and what you can realistically earn on your own. And it’s not just about you, either–if you have children, you have to consider them, too. Child support guidelines aren’t generous and don’t provide extra for extracurriculars or summer camps. Do you have what you need to make your lives work? Make sure you consider your options thoroughly before you reject spousal support.
Trust me, that doesn’t make you a gold digger.