Here’s a dirty word: “alimony.” Alimony has a nasty reputation as a device that enslaves men and demeans women—preventing divorced men from beginning new lives, and perpetuating female dependence on men. Alimony, it is said, has no place in an era of egalitarian marriage. That it survives is something of a mystery, and surely the day is not too far away when alimony will take its rightful place in the contemporary trash heap reserved for antiquated remnants of an unenlightened, gender-biased age.
The truth about alimony is very different. Alimony is gender-neutral (and must be, said SCOTUS in 1979), it is uncommon, and when awarded, it is usually short-term and freely modifiable. Indeed, the term “permanent” alimony is a misnomer, and the concept of lifetime enslavement an exaggeration. To be sure, outlier cases exist (check out the horror stories on Alimony Reform Group websites, but be suspicious), but in general, alimony’s propensity to bind cuckolded men to country club wives is myth.
As for the charge that alimony demeans women, actually the opposite is true—alimony ensures that women are treated as equal partners in marriage rather than suckers. In most homes, especially those with children, one partner serves as the primary family caregiver, a role that frees the other spouse to make a more concerted investment in a job or career. Primary caregiving is ubiquitous and primary caregivers are overwhelmingly female. While caregiving confers value on the family, it is not free for the caregiver: caregiving is commonly associated with a decline in earnings and ultimately in earning capacity. While the family is intact, these costs are shared and masked, but if the parties divorce, they are abruptly exposed. When marital property is scant, as it is in most marriages, alimony is the only tool for ensuring that divorcing spouses share, as equal partners, the human capital costs and benefits of family roles.
All this is why I am surprised by a recurring question, “How can you be a feminist and support alimony?” Maybe those who ask this question haven’t heard of Terry Hekker, the stay-at-home mom of five whose husband announced on their 40th wedding anniversary that he wanted a divorce. Long story short, Terry got four years of alimony, a suggestion from a divorce judge that she undertake job retraining at age sixty-seven, and a notice from the IRS that she qualified for food stamps. Meanwhile, her former husband vacationed in Cancun with his girlfriend.
Terry Hekker was thrown under the bus at divorce—and not respectfully. Her fate is a feminist issue and it is an issue, as one court said long ago, “of ordinary common sense, basic decency and simple justice.”
When I teach the economic consequences of divorce, I sometimes begin with the lovely voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing Irving Berlin’s classic: “I’m putting all my eggs in one basket. God help me if my baby don’t come through.” The unhappy truth is that some babies don’t come through; sometimes they change their minds and leave, and sometimes they take all the family eggs with them. Alimony is nothing more than a tool for ensuring that partnership eggs are shared.
Cynthia Lee Starnes is Professor of Law and the John F. Schaefer Chair in Matrimonial Law at Michigan State University College of Law. She is the author of The Marriage Buyout: The Troubled Trajectory of U.S. Alimony Law (NYU Press, 2014).