By Penelope L. Hefner
In the legal arena, it seems many times women have had to follow in the footsteps of men. But as family law attorneys across the nation are undoubtedly seeing, when it comes to spousal support it seems the shoe may be making its way to the other foot. In years past, according to “The Historical Background of Alimony Law and its Present Statutory Structure,” a 1939 article by Chester G. Vernier and John B. Hurlbut, former professors of law at Stanford University, the primary purpose of alimony was to “provide continuing maintenance for the wife.” It simply was beyond most lawmakers’ contemplation at that time that a husband would seek alimony.
The article noted that in 1886, only two states allowed for husbands to receive spousal support and three others did not distinguish between husband and wife. At the time the article was published, only fifteen states allowed spousal support for husbands. In the 1970s, the United States Supreme Court ruled against gender bias in alimony awards, making spousal support for husbands available nationwide. As a result, the percentage of alimony recipients who were male rose to 3.6% in 2006, according to a Wall Street Journal article that included interviews with male recipients of alimony.
The article went on to state: “That percentage is likely to rise as more and more marriages feature a primary earner who is female. In 2005…, wives out-earned their husbands in 33% of all families, up from 28.2% a decade earlier.” We don’t need statistics to know this- just look around you. Everyone knows of at least one couple where the husband cares for the home and children while his wife, with the more lucrative career, goes to work. Rather than the social stigma that was associated with such an arrangement in the past, husbands are more often being praised for supporting their partner’s ambitions and careers.
Where there is an increase in financially dependent husbands, there is an increase in men seeking spousal support. However, these men are often more willing to dismiss their requests in divorce negotiations than are women.
Why are men more quickly to waive this claim than women? These men may choose to give up spousal support if other outcomes are better for their long-term financial security. For instance, they may want a larger piece of the property distribution upfront that they can invest, rather than receiving monthly support checks. They may not be in a position to pay child support, and will waive spousal support in exchange. Finally, despite the lifting of social taboos, some may simply not be able to accept financial dependence on their ex-wives. This is in contrast to women, who are generally unwilling to forgo some level of support if they have filed for it.
Regardless of whether they pursue the claim to the point of receiving an alimony award or simply assert it as a point of negotiation, the road to gender equality is paved with legal rights afforded to men and women, no matter the gender. If a stay-at-home mother, who put her successful career on hold to care for the home and children while allowing the husband’s career to sky rocket, is entitled to support, why should the same not be said for a stay-at-home father in the same position? The statutory requirements are likely the same for both genders and if the proverbial shoe fits, it seems more and more men are willing to wear it.
Penelope L. Hefner is an attorney in the Family Law practice area of Sodoma Law, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she serves as a strong, compassionate advocate for her clients. Learn more about Penelope and Sodoma Law at www.sodomalaw.com.