As most readers will be fully aware, there are two types of maintenance within family law: child maintenance and spousal maintenance.
Both are emotive topics. Government attempts to automate the collection of child maintenance from non-resident parents have proved – shall we say – controversial in the past. A story on this blog about the new defunct Child Support Agency still attracts the occasional comment more than three years after it was first published. There have been a total of 280 to date.
But for all arguments and angst, few would question the fundamental existence of child maintenance. It is clearly right that parents support their children.
So what is spousal maintenance?
Spousal maintenance is something quite different: effectively an allowance paid to a financially dependent spouse on divorce. It can be short term, for a longer but limited period, or in some circumstances, for life. In the UK, the term ‘joint lives maintenance’ refers to maintenance that must be paid indefinitely, until one partner marries, dies or a further court order is made.
It should not, of course, be confused with financial settlements, when the courts divide the total assets of a divorcing couple, in order to fairly recognise the contributions that both have made.
In the United States spousal maintenance goes by a different name, one familiar to many of over here through American legal dramas: ‘alimony’.
If anything, spousal maintenance is even more controversial than child maintenance. In some jurisdictions – most famously Florida – so-called ‘lifetime alimony’ is the norm, placing quite a burden on the paying spouse.
Are men eligible for spousal maintenance?
One default assumption lies behind both types of maintenance: that men pay them and women receive them. In this, they reflect old social norms in which husbands were the ones who went out to work and brought home the paycheque, while their wives stayed at home and looked after the children. Spousal maintenance was intended to protect the proverbial wronged housewife suddenly deserted by her bill-paying cad of a husband, left high and dry in a world in which she had little or no ability to earn a living.
But times have changed and those old social norms have now become stereotypes. Most women now pursue a career even if they marry and some become very successful. Women in their 20s now earn more than men on average. It is only when the career woman decides to have a child – usually in her 30s – that the question of her giving up work to look after the children usually arises, and I’m sure only a minority now choose not to go back and remain financially dependent on their husbands indefinitely.
So in a world full of women earning their own way, steadily climbing the corporate ladder, should the courts still award spousal maintenance? Many suggest no, that most women are capable of earning their own money and should stand on their own two feet. I understand this point of view but would argue that the courts should recognise when a woman has been genuinely disadvantaged by giving up work. The maternal career break can, unfortunately, make women less employable or slow down their careers.
In recent years we have seen these new social realities reaching the courtroom. Witness the case of Tracey Wright, who was told by a Judge in no uncertain terms last year to find a job rather than continue to rely on her racehorse surgeon ex-husband.
Do women ever pay spousal maintenance?
But what happens when the wife earns more than the husband? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander too. If a wife enjoys a successful career and brings home more than her spouse, it makes perfect sense to many for the man to give up work when children come along. Female breadwinners may still be the exception rather than the rule but their numbers are growing at great speed. Despite this, the role is still a relatively new one and consequently often comes with a generous side-order of confused expectations, from the women as much as the men.
Recently, I came across an intriguing article on Forbes by a journalist called Emma Johnson. In this she asks Why do so few men get alimony? The article is clearly focused on the United States, but I still found it thought-provoking. She points out the huge discrepancy between the number of households in the US in which the wife reportedly earns more than the husband – a remarkable 40 per cent – and the number of men receiving alimony from ex-wives: about three per cent of all recipients.
The answer to Johnson’s question turns to be a combination of “macho pride”; an old-fashioned courtroom sexism in which some family judges appear to believe only women can receive alimony regardless of the family’s situation; and least salubriously of all, “bitter” resistance from some women to the idea of supporting their ex-husbands at all.
There is no doubt that men contend with a very different set of social expectations to women. The idea that they should be independent and that success as a man is synonymous with financial success, is deeply embedded in many. Emma Johnson interviews one father who preferred to live on canned soup and “potato chips” (crisps) rather than take alimony from his ex.
But equally such husbands face formidable barriers within the legal system, from judges unwilling to award men the amounts that they would happily give wives to women who try and shame their ex-partners into accepting nothing. Facing such obstacles, the majority of eligible men simply don’t bother it seems.
It’s interesting to note that the same journalist has written an article arguing that women should give up alimony altogether. Her first reason?
“An end of alimony would force each person to be financially responsible for themselves.”
I think the old expectations are gradually evaporating and that women will find it increasingly difficult to persuade the courts to grant them generous maintenance awards in the future.