A recent American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers survey found that 45% of lawyers had seen an increase in recent years of women responsible for alimony
Female breadwinners are ponying up for their exes more than ever.
A recent American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) survey found that more than four in 10 lawyers (45%) had seen an increase over the past three years in women being on the hook for alimony, aka spousal support or maintenance. Meanwhile, 54% said they’d seen a rise in mothers paying child support.
Decades ago, AAML president Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich told Moneyish, “it was almost traditionally the man who paid support, and the man who was earning a higher income — and it was the woman in either a lesser-income job or she would be a stay-at-home mom,” typically meaning she would receive alimony when the couple divorced.
But women now occupy more higher-paying positions and make more money than they used to, Marzano-Lesnevich pointed out. “Now when they’re faced with divorce, if they’ve had a history in their marriage of their being the breadwinner … or the husband being the child care provider, these women are going to be faced with paying support. And many of them are very surprised when they learn that.”
Indeed, today’s mothers are the primary breadwinners in four out of 10 U.S. families, according to Pew Research. And though only 3% of the roughly 400,000 alimony recipients in 2010 were male, per Census data, the trend of spousal support awards from women to men is “definitely on the rise” as women’s earnings continue to increase, New York divorce lawyer James Sexton told Moneyish.
Women have been responsible for paying spousal support since 1979, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that alimony should be gender-neutral. Many states over the years have shifted away from permanent spousal support — lifelong payments until death or the spouse’s remarriage — to alleviate the payer’s burden and catch up with the modern marriage.
“The concept behind maintenance has evolved,” Dilpreet Rai, a partner at the New York-based firm Hennessey and Bienstock LLP, told Moneyish. “Spousal support for a long duration is not as common as it (once was) … It goes to the idea that it’s about rehabilitation and getting someone back into the workforce, and making sure that they have time to get sufficient skills and training.”
There’s generally an expectation, “provided that both parties are physically capable of working and don’t have any other limitations that prohibit them from being back in the workforce,” that they can make arrangements to do so, Rai added. “And judges are expecting that of men and of women.”
But the notion of women paying alimony sometimes “doesn’t sit with our collective cultural stereotype,” Sexton said. “I think (women are) surprised by it: ‘What’s wrong with him? He can get a job’ — which, by the way, you hear from men as well,” he said. “Suddenly, women who sounded like Andrea Dworkin a minute before are like, ‘Wait a minute. Why do I have to pay him alimony?’”
“As much as men aren’t crazy about giving women alimony, we’ve noticed that women are adamant about it,” said Ken Neumann, director of the Center for Mediation & Training. “It just goes against the way a very young female is raised. Young males aren’t raised with that taboo.”
Sexton cites one example of a female financial analyst who pulls in about $450,000. Years after marrying a trainer she met at the gym, Sexton said, she discovered he was cheating on her. “She’s been told she’s got to pay alimony, and she doesn’t like it — because why should she have to pay for his vacations with a 22-year-old girlfriend?” he said. “And the answer is, this is how the math adds up.”
Liza Caldwell, an educator, coach and co-founder of the women’s divorce-coaching service SAS for Women, says roughly 25% of her active clients are primary breadwinners facing the alimony issue — and of that proportion, she added, about a quarter are angry and resentful over the idea of paying support to their prospective exes.
“When you’re hit with this stuff, you’re going into emotional duress and you’re only thinking about ‘me, me, me.’ You’re not thinking about empowerment and how this is actually a great sign of women becoming more powerful economically. We don’t go to that evolved place,” Caldwell said. “We think about, ‘This is coming out of my pocket — and damn it, he’s been a stay-at-home dad saying that he’s going to get a job for the longest time, and he hasn’t done it.’”
Caldwell says she encourages her clients to “be creative problem-solvers” and look beyond “the black-and-white template that a lot of divorce attorneys use.” After acknowledging the alimony amount, she said, they can try to resolve the issue in alternative ways palatable to both parties — looking at other sources like IRAs, big assets and debt.
But money isn’t the only power dynamic at play: Caldwell has multiple breadwinning clients, she said, who are also in physically, emotionally or verbally abusive relationships. “There are still gender issues. There’s still sexism. There’s still violence,” she said. “The fact that the woman has the money does not necessarily mean that she has the power behind the marital door.”
Yet another catch — for payers both male and female — is the new Republican tax law, which makes alimony payments for divorce settlements finalized in 2019 and onward no longer tax-deductible. “It’s created a lot of uncertainty in the area,” Rai said, noting that “you lose an opportunity to maximize the cash flow between the parties” by shifting from one tax bracket to the other. The tax deductibility was a way to make alimony “palatable,” Sexton added: “You could kind of sell it to your client: ‘A dollar doesn’t cost a dollar; it’s going to cost you 70 cents or 50 cents.’”
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Some want to abolish alimony altogether. Blogger Emma Johnson, for instance, argued in a 2014 Forbes column that ending the practice “would force each able-bodied person to be financially responsible for themselves.” “Take alimony out of the career-planning equation and we force women to take full responsibility for their careers and finances from the beginning of adulthood,” she wrote. “This is critical if we are going to close the pay gap, which has little to do with workplace sexism, and more to do with women choosing lower-paying professions and stepping away from careers to devote to family life.”
Marzano-Lesnevich advised young working couples to iron out a prenuptial agreement. “Nobody who’s getting married likes to think about getting divorced,” she said. “But the reality is that you can avoid a lot of this by sitting down, doing a good prenup (and) talking openly with each other.” Prenups are growing more common among younger people, she added, “so I’m not sure there’s the same stigma there used to be.” (A 2016 AAML survey found that just over half of attorneys reported a rise in the number of millennials asking for prenuptial agreements.)
A prenup can also be “a good education for you to understand what a contract is,” Caldwell said. “It does not mean that you’re putting a negative spell on your marriage — it means that you’re smart and savvy and that you know that you’re signing a contract when you get married.”
“When you understand what your rights are,” she added, “it gives you a sense of empowerment and possibility.”
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