After divorce, Mum gets to pay maintenance
Stacey L. Bradford
April 15, 2009
Article from: The Australian
AMY Williams, 38, never imagined she would end up a single mother of two paying maintenance to a former husband.
Yet that's where the media executive found herself when her 10-year marriage dissolved in 2004.
During the early years of the relationship, Williams (whose name we changed due to privacy concerns) supported her husband while he completed his PhD in history.
The assumption, she says, was that he would find a job in academe. That day never arrived. He was unable to find work but also didn't want to be the primary caregiver for their children. So Williams paid for child care.
When the two decided to part ways, it quickly became clear that Williams wouldn't be able to simply walk away. Why? According to family law, Williams was the primary breadwinner and her husband was viewed as a dependant who needed help getting back on his feet.
With the help of a mediator, the couple reached a financial agreement: in addition to splitting their assets, Williams agreed to give her former husband $US15,000 ($21,000) for a car and pay $US14,000 in financial support spread out through 14months.
"My feeling was that I worked hard while he was trying to figure out a career," says Williams.
"I was penalised for that during the marriage and then after it ended."
You don't have to be as successful as Britney Spears or Reese Witherspoon to fear getting sued for maintenance. Like Williams, more and more women today are obligated to pay their former husbands some form of financial support, says celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder.
Wives are the primary breadwinners in one in three marriages, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and therefore at risk of having to pay maintenance should the union fail. "Call it the dark side of the liberation coin," says Felder.
Historically, it was men who were obligated to pay, based on the assumption that women couldn't support themselves, says Alan Feigenbaum, co-author of The Complete Guide to Protecting Your Financial Security When Getting a Divorce. This was indeed the case back in the 1950s and '60s, when most wives were homemakers and cared for the children. In the '70s, however, society and divorce laws shifted. Women entered the workforce in larger numbers and family laws regarding marital support were made gender neutral.
What has not significantly changed, however, is that women are the primary caregivers of the children. So not only are these wives supporting their husbands, they're also caring for the children.
Today, men and women are equally eligible for some form of payment if one is dependent on the other for financial support, regardless of who takes care of the kids.
But here's some good news for women who hold the purse strings: the days when judges would easily grant long-term support are over, says Feigenbaum, especially for marriages that last less than than 10 years.
Typically the dependent spouse is granted temporary maintenance based on the length of the marriage or what's called rehabilitative support until he can get back on his feet. During this time the underemployed spouse may go back to school for another degree or get career training to update outdated skills.
In Williams's case, she desperately wanted her husband to find a job. But the law favours the status quo. In other words, since Williams allowed her husband to stay home while they were together, she was obligated to continue to support him until he could pay his own bills. This situation is not much different than when a woman says she gave up her career for the kids but has a full-time nanny," says Daniel Clement, a New York-based divorce attorney.
Despite gender-neutral laws, women do have at least one thing in their favour. Even when the law says dependent husbands are entitled to financial support, some lawyers say they have seen a stigma facing those who ask for support.
"When judges see a man asking for alimony they think: 'What's wrong with you?"' says Sandra Morgan Little, past chairwoman of the American Bar Association Family Law Section. Some men say they feel the stigma, as well.
When John Bailey (not his real name), a 31-year-old graduate student, got divorced he chose to walk away with nothing. He didn't even take the 50 per cent of the marital assets to which he was entitled.
He felt the assets were his wife's property since she earned them while he studied.
"At the time I had no income," he says. "It was bad. But I didn't want to be that guy who was getting alimony from his ex-wife."
Not all women will get off so easily. Nor should they, lawyers argue. If women want equality in the workforce, they will also have to take on the responsibilities attached to a higher salary, Little says.
In cases of divorce, that responsibility is paying maintenance.