This week I'm writing a series of blog postings on mediating your alimony agreement.
Alimony, also known as spousal support, is a major issue that comes up in some divorces. Alimony is among the more contentious issues that arise in Massachusetts divorces. It is also one best divorce-related issues to resolve through mediation.
Alimony is defined under Massachusetts law as “the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support for a reasonable length of time, under a court order.” In many cases, alimony is the most difficult legal issue to resolve without involving a neutral third party, like a mediator or a judge, because alimony is determined by many factors that can prove contentious. It is often said that “the hardest check to write” is an alimony check to a former spouse.
It is precisely because alimony can be source of such heated debate that divorce mediation can be the best way to find a solution.
Why do Former Spouses Sometimes Need Alimony?
In many marriages, each spouse makes different contributions. For many decades, a “traditional” marriage involved a husband working outside to financially support the family, while the wife’s contributions came as a homemaker and through child-rearing. This traditional arrangement often resulted in the wife being completely financially dependent on the husband’s income. If the marriage lasted for many years, this frequently meant that any professional skills the wife possessed early in the marriage could be obsolete by the time of the divorce. Even if wife had the skill and desire to enter the workforce later in life, the years spent at home often degraded her employability, wage history and professional credentials.
For women in a traditional marriage, divorce could be financially catastrophic. Without the husband’s income to rely on, a wife who spent her prime working years at home raising children or homemaking would find herself unable to support herself.
Of course, over the last two decades, the standing of women in the American workplace has changed drastically. Men still out-earn women in the workforce, but the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees now substantially exceeds the number of men graduating from college. Many marriages now feature “dual income home”, where each spouse works. However, even when both spouses work, there is frequently a disparity between each spouse’s earnings.
Indeed, as women have surged in the workplace over the last two decades, it is increasingly common to encounter couples in which the wife significantly out-earns the husband. Moreover, many public opinion polls in recent years suggest that more and more fathers view parenting as central to their identities in ways that fathers from previous generations did not. As a result of these two trends – gains in the workforce by mothers and increased parental roles for fathers – family law attorneys have seen a major increase in divorces in which a stay-at-home father was the equal or primary caregiver for children while a working mother was the primary wage earner. This dynamic has resulted in an increased in shared custody arrangements, more frequent child support payments to fathers, and for spouses without unemancipated children, an increase in former wives paying alimony to their former husbands.
Tomorrow I'll cover how alimony is supposed to work.