1. People & Relationships

The Great Alimony Myth

Are you expecting permanent or long-term alimony?

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I received an email recently from a reader who wanted out of her “abusive marriage.” The only problem, she and her husband are both unemployed. She was distraught because she had no money to file for divorce or support herself after a divorce.

Like so many women, she was under the impression that if she divorced she would receive alimony BUT she was in a quandary because her husband had no income to pay this assumed alimony.

She asked me, “Will a judge make him work and pay me?” I responded by telling her that a judge could order him to get a job but, it was up to her husband whether or not a job was acquired. I also told her that a judge could suggest that she also get a job and support herself.

There is a myth that women have about alimony and long-term marriages. It is believed that if you divorce after a long-term marriage that your ex-husband will be financially responsible for you with court ordered permanent alimony.

Alimony laws are state specific with each state handling the matter in a different manner. A few decades ago it was common for a woman to be given permanent alimony after a long-term marriage. That is no longer the case.

Alimony in The Twenty First Century:

The standard in most states today is rehabilitative alimony which is paid for a certain duration and gives a woman time to “rehabilitate” herself financially post divorce. Specifically this means taking college courses if she has no marketable skills or re-entering the workforce and rebuilding her career post divorce. Basically it is support while she has the opportunity to “get back on her feet.”

Texas and Mississippi award alimony only to marriages of 10 years or more and only for a short period of time. Utah will not grant alimony past a time period equal to the duration of the marriage, and Kansas curbs its durations at 121 months.

The last state in the country to continue to award long-term or permanent alimony, Massachusetts, is now (2011) reforming their alimony laws to catch up with the rest of the country. If the reform passes, alimony payment timelines will be based on the number of years a couple was married.

For instance, if a couple was married less than five years, the duration of alimony could only be half the number of months of the marriage. If a couple was married for 10 to 15 years, the maximum term alimony could be awarded for would be 70 percent of the time they were married. A judge would only be allowed discretion to award alimony indefinitely in marriages over 20 years.

I guess you could say that alimony reform has swept the country and, like it or not women who have been out voiced by men who run state legislatures have to suck it up and keep their expectations low when it comes to what or if they will receive alimony after a divorce.

The Great Alimony Myth:

According to Beverly Willett, Vice Chairman of the Coalition for Divorce Reform, “The financial risk stay-at-home parents face when it comes to alimony is even more troubling. When no-fault was instituted, permanent alimony awarded to spouses who had given up their careers to become stay-at-home parents began to fall out of favor, permanent alimony being deemed incompatible with the clean break idea behind no-fault.”

And therein lies the myth, if you are a stay-at-home parent who gave up your career to raise the children you have a right to permanent alimony. According to Ms. Willett if two parents agree to one parent staying home then that agreement should be legally binding after the divorce. And due to that belief women all over the country are angry because they have to become financially responsible for themselves once the divorce is final or the short-term alimony runs out.

Take Joan for instance. Her husband was ordered to pay alimony for 7 years because Joan had been a stay-at-home mother, had given up her career and when she wanted a divorce thought it her ex-husband’s place to support her because they had come to the agreement that she give up her ability to remain financially responsible for herself.

Joan’s alimony term is about to come to an end and she is in a panic because, instead of returning to the work-force or going back to college and rebuilding a career she has been skating by and surviving on alimony.

Joan believes the laws should be changed so that women like her can receive permanent alimony and never have to face the financial hardship she is now facing. Joan is a healthy, intelligent 45 year old woman. Her son is now in college, her child rearing days are behind her but she feels her ex-husband should still be held responsible for her, “lifestyle.”

I can understand the difficulty one would face when rebuilding a career after spending years as a stay-at-home mother, I’ve been in such a position myself. I don’t understand however the thought process that goes with believing that another person should be financially responsible for you, for a lifetime just because you stayed home and raised the children.

In an article for Forbes.com, Jeff Landers says, “If a woman has been in a long-term marriage, and she has either been out of the work force for decades or has an income that is substantially less than her husband’s, I believe she needs –and deserves –alimony in order to maintain a post-divorce lifestyle that’s at least somewhat comparable to the lifestyle she enjoyed during the marriage.”

I agree with Mr. Landers and if we lived in a perfect world a husband/father would not be allowed, by the Family Court System to arbitrarily leave a family who is financially dependent upon him…not without repercussions anyway. Since we don’t live in a perfect world and divorce laws are now changing direction as far as alimony is concerned I encourage all women to make employment choices that won’t mean one day ending up a victim of the great alimony myth.

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