The truth about alimony

—Cynthia Lee Starnes

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).

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7 thoughts on “The truth about alimony

  1. Whether your male or female, all factors need to be looked at in a divorce. The length of marriage, whether each party works or can work, the assets that each party are getting and so forth. In our instance, she got everything and he recieved very few items. She works, 2 jobs and the judge only takes 1 into considersation. He works too, has to pay her 1200 a month for alimony only, no minor children. I also work, I work 2 jobs actually to make up for the money we have to pay her and to be able to kind of make ends meet, also while trying to raise my children. The judge didnt care that our checking account was in the negative each week and that there are other children suffering because of this. The judge didnt care what he had to eat, where he lived or if he even had a place to live. All the judge cared about is making sire the womans life didnt have to change. This is wrong, look at all the factors and not just 1 or 2.

  2. What the author conveniently fails to acknowledge is that permanent alimony is awarded in marriages where both parties worked the duration of the marriage, in childless marriages and has become perverted by attorneys to such a degree that it has become nothing more than a transfer of wealth from one party to another.

    Further, statistics on alimony are not available from the majority of the states. No one can state with any certainty the % of divorces with alimony awards, the ages or genders of alimony recipients, what percentage of recipients worked during the marriage vs raised children, the % of recipients that remarry vs opt to live with a special friend as compared to the same statistics of payors that remarry or not. Considering the millions paid out in alimony, it certainly isn’t an accident that most states do not maintain statistics. After all, the Bar Association is a powerful and influential lobbying group.

    So although the author has credentials, her story is nothing more than her musings on a subject in which she clearly prefers to advance her own subjective opinion. As a woman paying permanent alimony, I have done an enormous amount of research on the topic. I can assure you the example provided by the author is reminiscent of a 1960’s marriage. Women currently are the breadwinner in 42% of dual income marriages. If the author truly wanted to make an argument on behalf of alimony, as a feminist she should have used an example of a woman payer to support her case.

    I’m so tired of stereotypical examples being used to perpetuate existing myths about alimony. There are thousands upon thousands of reform activists in every state lobbying for fairness and equity in family court. That’s not the result of a “rare” decision to award permanent alimony. It’s because the family attorneys and their lobbying arm (Bar Association) have peverted the intent and definition of alimony causing financial and emotional distress to families across the country.

  3. I strongly urge all to support alimony reform to abolish permanent alimony. At the conclusion of a divorce both parties should walk away in an equitable manner. Prior to the marriage they were individuals with separate lives, during marriage they merged, and upon divorce they should be allowed to return to their separate lives. One should not leave the marriage permanently tethered to the other. One should not reap the benefits of a free lifetime of alimony, while the other spends a lifetime wearing a financial yoke. By providing permanent alimony, Florida’s law today does just that. The current law rewards one spouse at the expense of the other. It took two people to make the marriage, and two people to make the divorce. In Florida, a no-fault divorce state, the permanent alimony provision certainly runs counter to the fairness and equality that is the spirit of the law, punishing the person forced to make lifetime alimony payments. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It needs to change!

  4. This kind of scholarship is to be applauded. The compensation for services and sacrifice of career opportunities model for the justification of alimony has legitimacy. By the same token, if we look at marriage with children and one wage earner, we can equally legitimately argue that the caregiver is being compensated for services during the marriage on a current basis. In other words, the stay-at-home caregiver is relinquishing career, but being compensated through the room, board and stipend for clothing and personal needs provided by the wage-earner. When the divorce occurs following failure of the relationship, both the wage earner and the caregiver retain liability for child support costs buti n two households. However, there are increased costs arising from two households, including costs to find substitute services that the homemaker spouse previously provided, such as cleaning, food preparation, child care , laundry, etc. that now must be provided by third parties.
    The fundamental unfairness in that model is that post-divorce support payments (i.e. alimony) are compensating the caregiver/homemaker for services that are no longer provided on a current basis. The rationale that alimony is intended to compensate the modern homemaker from losses incurred by reason of leaving the job market is likewise flawed because the modern homemaker presumably chose that path from multiple alternatives. As such they should be precluded from full economic recovery by reason of voluntary disablement; the homemaker spouse chose a life path, knowingly relinquished alternatives and assumed the attendant risks. The party who has not voluntarily assumed those risks should not be obligated to make open-ended compensatory payments upon the failure of the relationship. And if society requires one to do so, then marriage licenses should come with warning labels.
    The more fundamental problem with alimony is that the justifications and expectations arising from traditional marriage have no place in modern society. The undeniable failure of the family court system stems for the fact that the system grants support awards based on broad social assumptions that simply no longer exist.
    The solution is to not get married until the law in this area is rationalized. The institution of marriage was intended to provide a social framework for child-rearing in a bygone age. Modern marriage has become a gateway to unintended consequences and personal economic ruin for too many.

  5. Please support alimony reform. For more information and to join in advocating for guidelines and elimination of lifetime alimony please visit: florida alimony reform or family law reform• Elvina and Lee Kallett of St. Pete Beach, FL – Pays lifetime alimony to woman unable to remarry
    Lee Kallett of St. Pete Beach, FL – Pays $4K in permanent alimony to lesbian ex-wife This is Lee Kallett and Elvina Kallett. He pays permanent alimony to a woman who left the marriage because she chose to live a lesbian

  6. I post this to inform the public about the current antiquated alimony laws still in existence around the country. This is my alimony horror story. In the no fault divorce state of Florida, the ex had many adulterous affairs with other women (while pregnant with the second and last child) and including her incestuous relationship with her own 20 year old female cousin. In 2003 she formed Tampa Chaverot-Jewish Lesbians of Tampa Bay while we were still married. Then, she gets rewarded for all this and her changed sexual orientation with lifetime alimony in 2006 by the Hillsborough County Court (Tampa Case No: 05-DR-013627) and I get punished financially. How is this right and just? It certainly isn’t and the time to fix such an injustice is now. The duplicity continues and she blogs and writes as well as conducts her day to day life under an assumed last name, only using her legal last name on the driver’s license and to cash the hefty checks I write. If you are outraged about this avaricious hypocrite, please get involved to fight the unjust alimony laws around the country. There is no reason why a judge can’t order her to return to the workforce. She is a four year university graduate. The children are adults and no longer living in the home. There’s no reason why an able bodied, healthy, educated woman can’t be instructed by new law and guidelines to fully financially support herself. In a case similar to mine, a man paying lifetime alimony to his lesbian ex-wife had the alimony award overturned. A Minnesota court held that the “defendant’s post-decree lesbianism is a material change in circumstances which justifies the termination of alimony.” The case is Anonymous v Anonymous, 5 Fam.L Rptr. (BNA) 2127 (Minn.Dist.Ct.15 Nov 1978). Read the article here:
    This key point should be addressed in all proposed alimony reform legislation. Expanding the definition of “change in circumstances” beyond the financial to include a change in sexual orientation or gender will make the criteria more relevant to today.
    While the contemporary picture of marriage may be changing, here in Florida marriage remains between a man and a woman. Currently sexual reassignment surgeries are becoming more common place. Why should a spouse who believed they were marrying someone of the opposite sex, have to support that spouse who changes their gender or sexual orientation and redefines the marriage? The traditional marriage is broken through no fault of the other spouse. This is not like a couple who “fall out of love” or have grown tired of one another.
    Florida lawmakers should take into consideration this new reality and the changing landscape of marriage and reasons for divorce. Granting lifetime alimony to a spouse who changed sexual orientation or gender is absolutely an injustice. This needs to be stopped and such previous judgments overturned.
    Lifetime alimony affects the entire family and families are divided. Parental alienation occurs with the issue. The ex filed in the Circuit Court of the 13th Judicial Circuit, in and for Hillsborough County, FL Case No: 13-11991 Division G and on August 21, 2013 the judge ruled for Order of Dismissal of Temporary Injunction for Protection “The evidence presented is insufficient under Florida law”. The ex-wife attempted in her demand to muzzle our alimony reform efforts. She even had our 18 year old son testify against me. My daughter also advocated against reform by visiting the Governor’s office. She was interviewed by media as in this article. She provided a fake last name even though her legal last name is Kallett. http://miamiherald html
    Please support alimony reform. For more information and to join in advocating for guidelines and elimination of lifetime alimony please visit: florida alimony reform or family law reform• Elvina and Lee Kallett of St. Pete Beach, FL – Pays lifetime alimony to woman unable to remarry
    Lee Kallett of St. Pete Beach, FL – Pays $4K in permanent alimony to lesbian ex-wife This is Lee Kallett and Elvina Kallett. He pays permanent alimony to a woman who left the marriage because she chose to live a lesbian

  7. The Truth About #Alimony
    Attorney Cynthia Lee Starnes other women have very different opinion of alimony and do indeed think that it demeans women. Please Ms. Starnes do not comingle alimony issues with child support to garner a leg up. That position is archaic and trite. Everyone paying alimony, either male or female, wants to completely to support their children. Your presumption that women are the primary care giver is true, but that is a decision that women make freely. Just because women have children and choose to stay at home to raise their children does not preclude them from being independent women. In fact, the norm in the twenty first century is a two income family, often times with the women earning more than the man. Neither husband nor wife put all their eggs in one basket in the 21 century norm and if they do we cannot cure stupid.
    In a large percent of cases alimony is not awarded for a few years it is awarded for a life time, with creates a dependent class of women which is counterproductive to a thriving society. Alimony is a tool the Attorneys and the Courts use to continue the indentured servitude and the denuding of martial assets.
    Your positions are irrelevant, self-serving and not cogent to a 21 century norm.

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