Should Alimony Be Re-Thought?


Many states are reconsidering spousal support.

There was a very interesting story in a recent Wall Street Journal around the ancient right of alimony, money one ex-spouse (usually the man) pays to the other after a divorce.

The gist of the grist is that several states are currently reevaluating the way they handle spousal support. Alimony came into prominence in the US in the 60s and 70s in lockstep with an increase in divorce. In some states people can receive alimony for their entire life, even after they've remarried.

Proponents say the money compensates some spouses who have sacrificed careers for families and is particularly vital to low- and middle-income women. Detractors have long called the laws unfair in an age when many women work, with people making payments for years that their former spouses don't really need.

At the core of alimony debate is whether the payments are viewed as transitional—until the dependent spouse gets back on his or her feet—or a long-term dividend for sacrifices made during a marriage.

But, as the Journal points out, some of these cases skirt what can be described only as "fairness." For instance, one couple divorced after 17 years of marriage and agreed to split their communal property and promised to forego any future payments. But things didn't go according to plan for the lady half of the couple, and 25 years later she won alimony from her now-remarried ex-husband to the tune of $400 per week. The Journal runs through a handful of similarly bizarre cases to illustrate the need for reform (one even included a man living on his ex's dole).

Some judges evaluate cases on a need basis and would rather have an ex inconvenienced than make someone tap into public assistance. Many payers of alimony also are going back to court as the recent economic downturn has made old agreements no longer sustainable. Read: 10 Down And Dirty Divorce Tricks

While an equitable distribution of assets is fair and right, the system is not working correctly. Of course, almost every law can be subverted by a clever counselor or an inept member of the court. And, of course, our culture is built on double standards and instances of what's right for the goose is no good for the gander. (Did you know some people look down upon women who wantonly have sex with many men, while admiring men who do the same?) In these strange alimony cases it seems as if fairness and generosity got beat up by bitterness and a sense of entitlement. Americans reject the idea that someone can ever take a step backwards in standard of living. Maybe, as things are reevaluated, more of an emphasis should be put on revising each scenario on a case-by-case basis.

Interesting facts about alimony: 

  • Unlike child support, the tax obligation is on the person receiving the alimony rather than the one providing the funds.
  • Approximately 3 percent of alimony recipients are men.
  • At this time, New York is the only at-fault divorce state meaning that a divorce cannot take place without sufficient reason.
  • Willie Nelson says divorces are so expensive because they are worth it.