I blindly grew up and into my 30s assuming the standard-issue feminist party line:
Women's work is uncompensated and undervalued. When women become stay-at-home mothers, that benefits men's careers, and when the marriage ends, she should be compensated for that lost earning potential. Both partners' lifestyles should be the same when the marriage ends!
Then, I watched my friend get divorced, and face alimony.
He had a high-earning career, and after spending her 20s in low-paid retail jobs, his wife stayed home full-time until the kids were in high school, then worked part-time retail, tried to start a couple of craft businesses that went nowhere, and then started sleeping with her massage therapist.
When they divorced, this couple stayed on mostly friendly terms and would get together with the kids, who were by then in college.
His career continued on while she struggled bitterly. Since they broke up in the middle of the housing and stock market bust, there weren't many assets to divide.
The kids were out of the house, so there was no child support. When they split, he had been laid off and was unemployed, so there was no alimony.
She went from a very comfortable life as a suburban housewife, to struggling very hard to get by, living in a shared apartment.
At the time, I was incredulous about this. He should support her, I screamed in my head. Her lifestyle is so compromised compared with his.
Today, I recognize alimony as a dated, sexist construct that has grown out of its intended purpose, and only holds back women and gender equality back.
In this post, I outline:
- What is alimony and how it works
- Who is entitled to alimony (spoiler alert: rich, white women)
- The many ways that alimony holds women back, including:
- Alimony keeps women dependent on men
- When women are dependent on men, the pay gap and wealth gap persists
- Alimony keeps men and women stuck in traditional gender roles
- Alimony increases post-divorce conflict and makes co-parenting difficult
- An end to alimony would help marriages avoid divorce
- Common alimony arguments, debunked
- Ways to EARN more money, including high-paying career-level jobs from home
- How to move on from your marriage, and thrive as a single mom
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First, alimony basics:
What is alimony?
Alimony is an ongoing sum of money that one ex-spouse pays to the other ex-spouse after a marriage ends in divorce. Alimony can be referred to as spousal support, and maintenance, as in “ensuring that the woman is maintained in a lifestyle to which she is accustomed.”
Alimony is not child support. Alimony only applies when a couple has been married, and is intended to support the lower-earning spouse (typically the wife) — not the kids.
Child support applies to all separated families, and every state has a child support calculator that will give you a good idea of what you are expected to pay.
Child support is designed to help support children — not the parents. Of course this is complicated, as we will discuss below.
Learn more about child support calculations and laws, as well as how to deal if you are one of the minority of women who pay child support or alimony.
How alimony works
Alimony only applies when a husband and wife were married, and in rare instances, if common-law marriage applies. Alimony is based on the incomes of both spouses, and the higher-earning spouse is ordered to pay the lower-earning spouse.
The spirit of this agreement dates back thousands of years to various cultures in which husbands were required to continue to support their wives in the event that he wanted to leave her — ensuring some financial protection for women in eras when we few legal or financial rights, or career opportunities.
Each state has different alimony laws on its books, and typically, there is a lot of discretion to how a judge may (or may not) award alimony payments.
What is alimony based on?
Typically a court (or family lawyers negotiating a settlement) will calculate alimony based on:
- How much income each spouse makes.
- The earning potential of each spouse, including education and work experience, and recency of the work experience.
- Expenses of each spouse.
- If one spouse is disabled in any way, that may be considered.
- Which spouse has more time sharing with the children.
- Viability that “the standard of living established during the marriage” would continue for both spouses.
How alimony is calculated
Again, this will vary greatly by where you live, and who the judge is, and details of the marriage and each spouse.
For example, in New York, the alimony formula typically only applies to spouses who have been married at least 10 years.
Then, alimony is set at 30% of the higher-earning spouse’s income, minus 20% of the lower-earning spouse’s income — as long as the recipient's share is not more than 40% of the couple’s combined income. For example, a surgeon making $500,000 a year married to a teacher earning $50,000 would be ordered to pay about $140,000 a year.
Is alimony tax deductible?
For divorces filed after Jan. 1, 2019, alimony payments are no longer tax-deductible for the payor, nor are they considered taxable income for the recipient.
However, old laws allowing for alimony payments to be tax-deductible for the payor, and required to be reported as income for the recipient, apply to those who divorced in 2018 and earlier.
Alimony is received by women
Fact: Per U.S. Census data, 97% of alimony recipients are women.
Alimony is for the rich
Fact: Per the IRS (in the New York Times): “The rich disproportionately deduct alimony — about 20 percent of taxpayers who currently claim the deduction are in the top 5 percent of household income earners.”
Also, the richer you are, the more likely you are to get married. Alimony only applies if you were married. According to Census data reported in this fascinating Institute for Family Studies paper, here is the percentage of Americans aged 18-55 who were married, based on income:
Poor: 26% married
Working class: 39% married
Middle and upper class: 56% married
Says the IFS: “When it comes to coupling, poor and working-class Americans are more likely to substitute cohabitation for marriage.”
White women get alimony far more than black women
Fact: White women get alimony far, far more than black women and Latinas. While the last report on these figures was based on a 1985 Census figures found that in divorce, white women were twice as likely to get alimony than black women. Those numbers are old, but we know that for the entirety of this country's history, black women marry at a far lower rate than white women. From a paper published by the Department of Health and Human Services:
In 2014, 70 percent of non-Hispanic white children (ages 0–18) and roughly 59 percent of Hispanic children were living with both of their biological parents. The same was true for only a little more than one-third of black children.
Similarly, rich women get alimony far more than poor people.
No marriage = no divorce, and alimony only applies in a divorce.
Also, black women out-earn their black husbands more often. Chicago matrimonial attorney Lester L. Barclay, author of The African-American Guide to Divorce & Drama: Breaking Up Without Breaking Down, told Essence: “African-American women tend to be better-educated and higher-wage earners so when you’re ending a marital relationship the economic factors come into play.”
This observation is backed by an analysis of Census data and reported here, finding that black and Latina women were more likely to be breadwinners (or co-breadwinners) than white women.
How long do you pay or receive alimony?
Increasingly, lifelong alimony is being phased out around the country, in favor of alimony calculations designed to ensure the lower-paying spouse has a financial runway to build up a career and become more financially independent.
Just a generation ago alimony was a feminist coup, giving women with scant financial opportunity a way to support themselves and their families in the event of divorce. This made sense when women had scant financial or professional opportunity. Those days are gone.
In many states lifetime alimony is being challenged, and how the growing numbers of (successful, professional) female judges have little sympathy for women who do not work outside the home, and are denying them alimony.
New York City family attorney Morghan Richardson, says that women are often stunned to hear their soon-to-be ex-husbands confess that they never really wanted her to abandon their careers and stay home. They are also stunned to hear divorce and child support judges demand women work full time — no matter how many or how little their children are. In the mommy wars, the increasing numbers of female judges (who are firmly in the working mothers camp) have their say. And they say being a SAHM does not count as work.
In other words: You can argue all day long that staying at home raising children is a full-time job. But the legal system decides, and the legal system disagrees. So does your husband.
I've see this attitude in many of the men I've dated. These are progressive, feminist men who maybe at one point conceded that it made sense for one parent to stay home full time with the children. Then the kids got older. He was under a lot of pressure to be the sole breadwinner and he resented it, especially since there was another educated adult in the family. He went to work each and every day with women — beautiful women — who worked fulltime and raised what seemed like perfectly healthy children. And now they're divorced and he is so, so angry that he pays her bills since she makes so much less than she could have had she stayed in the workforce and “pulled her own financial weight,” which may have saved the marriage!
The reform is the result of petitions by groups who feel that alimony hurts men by making them pay an unfair sum to women they are no longer married to, and who have opportunity to be financially independent. Reform is just beginning.
This new shift away from guaranteed, lifelong maintenance is tough for women who did not prepare for the financial realities of divorce and chose to be dependent on their husbands. I sympathize with some of these women — those who have disabled and special needs children who require intense, and extensive care long beyond age 18, women who are mentally or physically disabled themselves, and women who are in their 70s and older and came of age when there truly was not economic gender equality.
But for everyone else, I applaud this move to limit alimony. This is good for women, and what is good for women is good for families and the country.
The many ways that alimony holds women back (alimony arguments debunked)
Alimony was a huge feminist coup in the 1960s and 1970s when divorce rates first skyrocketed, and women had scant professional, education, legal, political and financial standing (Sisters: we were not allowed to hold a credit card in our own names until 1973!).
Since then, the world has changed, laws and opportunities have changed, and so, too, must what we expect from marriage — and life post-marriage.
Thankfully, alimony reform is underway in almost every state in the United States, and lifetime maintenance is more or less over.
Despite the blaring reality that men and women should always have a way to support themselves, women are still pressured painfully to be full-time stay-at-home moms.
Pew Research found that 40 percent of Americans believe it harms children when mothers work outside the home, and 80 percent of respondents told Working Mother magazine they feel guilty for working.
Nevermind the fact that the vast majority of mothers need to work so they and their children can eat, or the mounds of both research and anecdotes that prove that children, mothers, marriages and the economy thrive when moms are employed — we are still told that at-home is best.
Today I understand that turning down alimony and supporting women in financial independence is the real equality coup.
If you, like me, assumed that alimony was good for women, was a source of fairness and justice, you likely have one of these arguments the ready. Let's break them down:
We had an agreement — He would work and earn, and I would stay home with the kids. He broke that agreement and now owes me.
I am all about approaching marriage as a business deal, and in fact, you did have a deal.
Business deals end every single day, and I know of zero exits in which one business partner is ordered to compensate the other in perpetuity for hurt feelings and lost earning potential.
Divorce, just like in business, includes splitting the assets, debts, and finding an equitable way of managing and taking care of any outstanding obligations (like child rearing).
In business, no one is monetarily punished because the cafe couldn't turn a profit, or the bicycle shop burned down, or the software company went belly-up in a recession.
In business, when shit happens, both partners suck it up and do their best to move on with their respective lives, like two adults.
First of all, a full-time stay-at-home mom is not full-time work after our kids turn age 3. For our great-grandmothers, housework was a full-time endeavor. It hasn't been since the 1950s. Instead, nearly all housework is automated and outsourced to clothing and linen manufacturers in China, commercial farmers and food manufacturers, makers of washing machines, dishwashers, coffee makers, vacuum cleaners, self-cleaning ovens — and every other modern convenience that makes the idea of a “housewife” laughable.
In fact, helicopter parenting not only holds kids back, but it makes women broke.
Child care and housekeeping do of course still need to be done, though all research finds that children ages 3 and older do far better at quality child care centers, and benefit zero from long hours with parents. Even for hours that mothers do spend with children have a market rate. Again, if you argue that you should be paid alimony for your house and child care duties, that rate should be based on market rate — not a percentage of your husband's income.
Child care centers costs on average, nationally, $4.90 per hour, according to a survey by Care.com, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that house cleaning averages $11.46 per hour.
That means that if you were enjoying a lifestyle that corresponds with more than, say, a $20,000 annual income, you got a great bargain.
And if you were living at or below the poverty line during your marriage, then a judge probably wouldn't grant you any of your ex's income — because there simply isn't enough to go around.
Recently there was a very interesting discussion in my Millionaire Single Mom closed Facebook group (join us!) that addressed the challenges of dating men whose first wives were full-time stay-at-home wives. A number of women refuse. Reasons include:
Men whose only example of a long-term romantic partner is someone who cared for the daily minutiae of running a home and family is incapable of overseeing the basics of life, and will treat any future partners like, well, wives:
If a guy has had a stay at home wife, I won't date him until he's lived in his own for at least a year and has had his eyes open that some fairy doesn't take care of his shiznit in the background. They're overgrown children. — Lynette
Others are bitter about their own marriages that were informed by exes who were, in turn, informed by their own stay-at-home moms:
My ex was/is sooo used to his mother doing everything. So when we were together I ended up doing everything because he was either incapable or oblivious. Realizing I was already doing all the parenting/housework and working (from home) was the trigger for me to leave. I figured out I was doing it all anyway, why have him around? Didn't need him… It was a freeing and very empowering. — Rebecca
Other moms felt that these men simply did not get them — Ambitious, independent women who are thrilled to earn and achieve on their own terms:
I recently dated a man — long distance — whose ex-wife stayed at home. She never finished college, so her career choices were limited. I thought it interesting that he just assumed I'd give up my 20+-year music career in a large city to move to his mid-sized town where there were zero opportunities in my field. He even once said, ‘We'd be OK if you had to take a pay cut.” I briefly turned into Cruella De Vil: Why on Earth would I take a pay cut when I've worked REALLY REALLY hard to get where I am?? It was that presumption that a woman would give everything up and fold into him that was the deal-breaker for me. — Prianka
Other moms said they found these men to be the bitter ones — feeling they'd been taken advantage of financially (since women without careers often are awarded alimony, at least in the short-term), and often when it came to unfair parenting schedules, with courts defaulting to archaic gender stereotypes in which men work and financially support women who stay home and care for babies.
He needs to compensate her for lost wages
You may say: “It is not fair. I forsook my career and earning potential to stay home / work part-time / take a lower-paying job, which allowed him to build his career, and now I am SOL. He needs to compensate me for that lost earning potential, and for helping him to build his career.”
First of all, you say that this was a mutually agreed-upon arrangement, and perhaps it was.
But, the real story likely includes some element of at least one of these scenarios:
- You got laid off/ fired / your business tanked and you just never got back in the career saddle.
- You weren't very good at your chosen career. Your business never worked out, or you never had much of a career to start with.
- Your husband urged you to work. Begged and pleaded with you, and you refused.
Maybe it is a little bit of all those stories. These things can be complicated, open for interpretation.
Child care is crazy-expensive, and at the time, it very likely seemed like you had no choice but to stay home.
No matter. The reality: You took a risk, and decided not to have a career — or down-ramped to a lower-paying job with less potential.
You chose to be dependent on a man, even though there are no financial experts in the world who would support that as a wise move.
You knew very well that divorce rates have hovered around 50 percent for 40 years, yet you did nothing to financially protect yourself or your children against that.
Breakups aside, there is pretty much a 100% chance that your husband would
a) Become disabled
b) Become unemployed
c) Become chronically ill
You likely have life and disability insurance, which you are far less than 50% likely to need.
But you did nothing to maintain your earning potential which would protect your family in any of those scenarios, either.
That was a risk you took. It didn't work out, and you lost. I'm sorry about that. I really am. But it is not another person's responsibility to compensate you for your loss. Scratch-off didn't win? You don't sue the bodega owner.
As for the notion that you made your husband's career … OMG. First, if you were, in fact, a co-owner of a business, then hopefully you got that legally locked down, and then there are mechanisms for divvying that up, or, in some cases, ex-spouses go on to successfully co-run businesses. Pretty cool.
But if you think that taking care of the kids and house makes a man, guess again.
- That man goes to work every day with successful women who are also wives and mothers — many of them single mothers. And plenty of them are really hot. Women can and do it all. (But not entitled ones.)
- Increasingly, judges who insist that stay-at-home moms get back to work ASAP are often females — judges who themselves had to claw their way to the bench in a chauvinist industry, while their children enjoyed perfectly nice child care. Male judges are sick of educated, competent, healthy women arguing that they should not have to work — as many of of these guys have professionally hard-working wives (or ex-wives to whom they bitterly pay alimony). The sympathy for this thinking is simply out of step with the times.
I do work! I am building a business / doing art / going back to school. We agreed I would get this off the ground, and he would support me!
Again, I get that was the verbal contract, and it is now not being honored.
That happens, and it is often unfair. I am sorry.
In the real world, every upstart endeavor has its limits. Startups answer to investors who demand returns on their funding. Your startup did not have those real-life limits.
Art patrons expect quality, marketable work after a certain period — or other favors. You were in a cushy arrangement in which you did not have to answer for your lack of success.
The good news is that I can attest to hearing countless stories of women who left an unhappy marriage, only to find themselves surprised by their success — and a bit dismayed at the realization that they'd held themselves back professionally, creatively and financially for the sake of pandering to a man's ego.
That was my story.
Ladies, the free market is a beautiful thing.
Too much cushy support with no accountability is good for no one.
This is scary, I know. You can do it. Trick: When I find myself really scared about making it, screwing up my kids, living on the street, I have a mantra:
Dumber people have done this successfully.
Again, if alimony is even a consideration, you are very likely to be rich. Get over yourself, get a job.
He has so much more than I do. It's not fair.
You know who has a lot more money than I do? A whole, whole, whole lot of people.
Some of them I know personally.
Do I expect these rich people to write me a check every month to equalize our lifestyles? No, because I didn't earn their money.
You are no longer married to this man.
You do not get to enjoy a lifestyle you did not earn just because once upon a time you were attractive to a man who was able to provide a lifestyle higher than one you earned yourself. I don't care if you are very, very beautiful, charming, from an impressive family or have a golden, fur-lined pussy.
You are not entitled to anyone else's anything if you did not earn it yourself.
He is free to go on and build and enjoy whatever lifestyle he wants. You are, too. That is the beauty of divorce.
The sooner your bank accounts and homes are separate, the sooner you will both go forth, and hopefully, create happy lives.
Perhaps you have a career — even a very successful one — that happens to earn a lot less than your now-ex.
Again, that is your choice. You chose that career, knowing its earning limitations.
Your ex chose a different career — one with a higher cap. Perhaps you love your work, and he hates his.
Do you owe him a slice of your professional fulfillment each month?
Further, by insisting that your lifestyle be attached to his income only perpetuates the sexist message that a woman's worth is directly related to the social class of the man she marries/has sex with.
NOT A GOOD LOOK.
Argument: This is not money for me; it is for the kids.
No, and you know that. Child support is for the kids; alimony is for the lessor-earning spouse to “maintain the lifestyle in which they are accustomed.”
To fulfill that promise, you are putting untold energy, time and money into finding ways to get money from a man with whom you are no longer romantically involved. If you get that money, you will be forever financially dependent on him.
That isn't a good look.
I was always taught that it is best for children and marriages when the mom stays home, and if the marriage ended, then we were protected by alimony. Now we are all SCREWED.
If you have been arguing with me as you read this, you are likely really angry at your ex, the world, and there is likely a deep sense of shame about decisions you made.
I understand. I was a stay-at-home mom for about a year, and I decided to leave a high-paying career that I loved passionately, without any critical thought at all, because I blindly bought the presumption that being a full-time stay-at-home mom is what is best for children.
Pew Research found that 40 percent of Americans believe it actually HARMS children when their mothers work outside the home!
Turns out, you and I were totally wrong. Research by Harvard's Kathleen McGinn found, after studying 30,000 families in 20 countries, that both boys and girls with working mothers fared better than those with stay-at-home moms.
A University of Maryland meta-study of more than 30 other pieces of research concluded that after age 2, it doesn't matter at all how many hours parents spend with their kids. Stunning. Totally against what we were taught, and what we assumed.
Which brings us to your point: This isn't fair. It isn't fair. You were fed one line, a path for success and family health, and you obediently obeyed. Then the script changed, you divorced, and you are left high and dry.
Here is what no one will say to you: I'm sorry, but too bad, you still have it damned good.
We are in the middle of a war on sexism. A revolution for gender equality. In war and revolutions, there are casualties. Historically, these casualties are lives and limbs and eyesight.
Today, the fallout is that you might have to move from a large house to an apartment.
Or from your own apartment to sharing a home with a relative or friend. You may have to work in a job below your education level.
I imagine that is hard and embarrassing.
Yet, you are not dead or dismembered.
Here, in the divorce wars, the casualties are children — and it is all connected to money. Statistically, the #1 reason for divorced spouses returning to court, again and again, is alimony.
When you are fighting with your ex, you cannot co-parent. When money is at stake, lesser-earning parents (moms) are prone to fight for unequal parenting time, so as to qualify for more child support.
When parenting time is unequal, the lesser-time parent (dads), are statistically likely to check out of their children's lives. Fatherlessness is a critical issue in this country. Money is central to it.
The goal is to raise young women and men to presume financial and logistical responsibilities for themselves and their children.
That won't happen if mothers and grandmothers are modeling financial dependence and presumed traditional gender roles.
That won't happen if young people do not see this model.
When you are going through the life-fuck that is divorce, you likely feel powerless. Every vertical of your life is in upheaval, and the sense of loss of control can be crippling.
The reality is that you have enormous power here. You have the power to focus on your beliefs and morals and act accordingly.
When you tell your ex: “I know I can go after more of your money, but I won't so we can both get on with this,” or “You know I am totally broke here, so if you can agree to pay me alimony for 18 months so I can get back on my feet, we can both move on with it already,” you are so powerful.
You are expressing to him grace and maturity (even if he doesn't deserve it, and I understand that he may not!). You are expressing to your children the importance of co-parenting, and therefore their well-being and security.
You are telling every young woman who is watching you the importance of caring for her own financial self throughout her life.
And you are modeling to everyone watching you the power of forgiveness and strength in the face of adversity — and that includes forgiveness of yourself.
What to do instead of fighting for alimony
Now look: I know and, you know, the dismaying statistics around finance and women and divorce and moving on after you have been out of the workforce for a long time.
Those numbers are real, and I hope that women far and wide read and heed those facts so that one day we can all stop talking about alimony and gender equality, and move on to repairing the environment and wealth disparity.
Here are some other facts: Women get on with it every single day. Figure it out.
Start new careers, rejuvenate old ones. Launch and build businesses. They do incredible things.
Things they never dreamed they were capable of. Things they could not imagine.
These women all have one thing in common: They are not entitled.
They are not sitting around waiting for someone to hand them anything. They did not take anyone to court for what they felt entitled.
They did not refuse to marry their longtime, live-in boyfriend so they would qualify for alimony (who are these greedy emasculated boyfriends? So much wrong here).
The women who thrive after divorce — including those who had little or no money of their own — hustled their asses off and got results.
These women have something else in common.
They will all tell you this: There is nothing as delicious as money you earn your own damn self.
Did I scare you into upping your income? Feel sad or guilty at the thought of being away from your kids for long hours? Here is how to move on in this new phase of life:
Self-care after divorce
Warning: Self-care is not expensive if you can't afford it. When you are broke, or trying to be financially independent of your ex, over-spending just creates debt, stress and misery.
Focus on enjoying your own company, affordable travel with your kids, quality friendships, exercise and other positive physical and mental health practices.
Therapy can be a great tool for some people. If your health insurance doesn't cover counseling, or you find time or a lack of quality therapists in your area keep you from seeking the support you deserve, consider online therapy.
Reputable online therapy sites like BetterHelp allow you to connect with thousands of licensed counselors through email, phone, chat or video connection, privately (no bumping into your neighbor outside your counselor's office!). Fees start at $40/week for unlimited sessions.
Create a lifestyle you can afford after divorce
Build your career post-divorce
Thanks to technology and a changing work culture that values parents and is happy to offer flexible, temp, telecommute, remote and other work-at-home opportunities, there are countless quality, legit jobs and careers that pay well, and also provide the flexibility to spend time with your family, working out, build a side gig, or otherwise enjoy life.
In fact, working from home tops my gratitude list most days, as it has allowed me to devote concentrated sums of time building a business that I love, pays well, and allows me to spend as much (or little! Let's e real here!) time with my kids as I need to.
This is my list of top, high-paying careers that you can do from home.
The list includes careers that often pay $100,000 or more:
My favorite job board for moms is FlexJobs — the leading job site specifically for telecommuting, part-time, flexible-time, online, work from home, and other alternative work arrangements that make such a big difference in families’ lives.
FlexJobs was started by Sara Sutton-Fell, a real-life mom who wanted to work from home, earn a good living, and spend time with her family. Check out FlexJobs.com now>> (use promo code FLEXLIFE)
If you need fast, extra cash (not necessarily a new job or career), here is my list of 101 ways to make extra cash, quick. Advice includes easy ways to sell things you have, the best online survey companies, online English tutoring, and rent stuff you own, like your home or car.
Start dating after divorce
I was terrified to date after divorce, and only went on a date after a full year because my friend forced me onto a blind date. I had never dated as a single mom, my body had changed, and the world had changed (hello, smart phones, online dating, and sexting!).
Today, I can attest that dating as a single mom is truly wonderful, as many women can attest. I write all about the reasons in this post on why dating after divorce is so thrilling (including the sex).
Online dating can seem intimidating or desperate if you've never done it, but surveys find that is the No. 1 most common ways for marrying couples to meet. I have gone on hundreds of dates that originated online, including my three-year relationship with my current boyfriend.
- A deep personality survey to make highly compatible matches
- Profiles verified by Customer Care
- Free personality report
- Apps for iOS and Android
- 82% of the members have a college education
- Over 90% of members aged 30+
Build your own wealth after divorce
You likely left your marriage poorer than when you were married, even if you did get the house and a share of investments.
If you don't already feel confident about investing, learn. Here is my guide to investing for women.
Build up an emergency savings account (CIT has one of the highest money market rates on the market, at 1.9% APR as of March, 2020).
Get a free financial plan for in minutes with Ellevest, a roboadvisor investment platform designed specifically for women. Create a financial plan now >>
The alimony gravy train (get off it!)
Nearly 400,000 divorced women receive alimony — a critical topic when considering post-divorce life, feminism, the pay gap, and women's empowerment — financial or otherwise. I feel very strongly that every single woman (indeed, 97 percent of people who get spousal support are women) should turn down any opportunity for alimony, aka spousal support, as it is a took to keep women to be dependent on men and not take full responsibility for themselves.
Here are all the reasons why:
Alimony is legislated dependence for womenAn end of alimony would force each able-bodied person to be financially responsible for themselves.
Suffragists and feminists before us fought bitterly (and sometimes joyously, one would hope) so you and I have financial and legal parity with men. We have a way to go, but for the most part in this country women have the opportunity to support themselves. With opportunity comes responsibility. You choose to be financially dependent on someone else (like a husband), you take a risk. If that marriage ends and you have little career equity and low earning potential as a result, you must pay the consequences of the downside of that risk. Taking that responsibility away from women, and perpetuating a model in which women are financially dependent on men, infantizes all women. We are not infants. We are capable adults with untold professional and financial opportunities.
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. 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 — all in the name of being a “better” mother who spend countless time with her children, even though all the search proves that children fare better when they have moms who work, and benefit none from endless hours with their parents.
Harvard professor Kathleen McGinn found, in her study of 34,000 people across 24 countries, that girls raised by mothers who worked outside the home for pay, achieved more academically and grew up to be women who achieved more professionally and financially than their peers who had stay-at-home moms. Boys raised by working moms were more caring for children and older people living in the home than their SAHM peers, and grew up to be men who were the same — all while achieving as much academically and professionally as those raised by SAHMs. In short: kids grow up to be what they see.
I talk about this on this blog, my podcast, and book, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), and am very proud to say I have converted many moms to getting off the alimony gravy train (one of my favorite reader book reviews: “Thanks for ruining alimony for me forever, Emma!”). Many women say that this message has propelled them into a life of autonomy independent of the man to whom they were once married. Nonetheless, there continue to be lots of vintage thinking about money, marriage, family, and gender, and in this post, I explain why all the typical arguments in favor of alimony are wrong.
Listen to my interview with McGinn:
Alimony makes divorce so much harder, more expensive, and dragged out
Alimony adjustments, enforcements and arguments, are the No. 1 reason that divorced couples return to divorce court, or otherwise spend money on expensive family lawyers. Think about it:
There are countless ways to fight about alimony:
- You suspect or know his income increased, and therefore believe you are entitled to more.
- He suspects or knows you are earning more (good for you!) and therefore he should be paying less.
- He believes (or says) his income decreased, or his living expenses went up, so he should pay less.
- One of your remarried, or is in a relationship or living with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and therefore your financial situation has changed, and one of you believes the payments should be adjusted, too.
- Someone believes income is earned under the table, is not reported, or otherwise being hidden.
And on and on. It's exhausting, toxic, keeps you enmeshed in the emotional part of the divorce for ever and ever, and the only people who benefit from this are the divorce lawyers, who laugh all the way to the bank.
Take alimony out of the equation, the co-parenting relationship improves, and the divorce is far more amicable from the start. In fact, you may even be file a no-contest, DIY divorce, for a few hundred dollars.
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Alimony contributes to the wealth gap
When women earn their own money and think like breadwinners, the wealth gap will shrink. One study found that women’s involvement in household finances is directly proportionate to their contribution to family income. In other words, the more a woman contributes to the family finances, the more involved she is with managing them. Consider these alarming figures on female financial literacy from workplace wellness program firm Financial Finesse:
- One-third of women feel confident about their investment allocation, vs half of men
- 66% of women report a general knowledge of investing, vs 85% of men
- 63% of women report having a handle on cash management, vs 78% of men
- 47% of women indicate that they have an emergency fund, vs 62% of men
One, a stay-at-home mom told me at our kids' bus-stop that if she ever got a divorce, her husband would have to pay her out the nose for all her “sacrifice.” Never mind he was perpetually unemployed in a middle-class job. Where did she think that all that money would come from? Bottom line is she was relaying the common assumption that men always pay women when they have children together, and this woman had no money, a neglected career and a low-income husband.
Ending alimony would be a boon for family financial security, ringing a clear, screaming alarm that you, woman, must plan for the very real chance that both spouses’ income will be likely critical to the family. What will it take for people to realize — and plan for — the fact that divorce rates have hovered around 50% for decades? Divorce is just one risk.
Maintaining a career is about being a responsible member of your family. Even if you have the hottest, most committed marriage that lasts until the end of one of your lives, there are other realities you must plan for. And if you are divorced and dependent on income from your ex, never forget that he could lose his job, die, become disabled, chose a lower-paying career, see his business tank, or go MIA. You have no control over that, and if you depend on his income, you live in fear every single day it will go away. Shift that energy into your own income and career, which you do have control over, and watch your life change.
Unemployment. Nearly four out of five U.S. adults will face severe joblessness, near poverty or being on welfare. Men in recent history have been far more likely to suffer in an economic downturn. During the recession – from December 2007 to June 2009—men lost 5.4 million jobs while women lost 2.1 million. Again, this is a numbers game. Betting on your husband to support you and your family simply is not a good financial move.
Disability. Nearly 5% of all eligible adults receive disability insurance benefits.
Life. Crap happens. Accidents, psychotic breaks, natural disasters and fires. You have no idea what is in store. So you do smart things. Like keep a career going, which boosts your family’s financial security by 2x at least.
Alimony (and child support) keep you passionately attached to your ex
I have a friend who abandoned a thriving small business she’d built for 15 years when she married a successful New York City tax attorney and had a baby. The marriage ended. He pays her a sum each month that keeps her in an Upper East Side two-bedroom, three-story townhouse, while she struggles to rebuild her business. “Tell your readers to never stop working,” she told me recently. “There is nothing worse than being dependent on a man who you are trying to separate from.”
Also, there is nothing better than knowing that your own life is entirely of your making. That is the definition of empowerment — gender or otherwise.
I was on WCCO CBS in Minneapolis speaking about this win my friend, anchor Jordana Green who receives alimony. “Isn't it unfair if you're used to living in a $500,000 house but have to move into an apartment when you divorce?” she asked.
My answer? “If you want a $500,000 house, pursue a career that affords you one.”
As one alimony reform activist emailed me: “Alimony law was created to ‘keep the lesser earning spouse in the lifestyle in which they are accustomed.' Using that logic, wealthy parents should be legally obligated to support their kids throughout their lives.” I agree.
Alimony makes co-parenting very contentious
Alimony and child support are the main reasons that people return to family and divorce courts again and again. There has never, ever in the history of divorce been a person who pays money to another person who they believe is capable of supporting themselves. Since your ex is angry about paying alimony (and child support), that anger will manifest in all sorts of ways in your relationship, which has now been reduced to coparents. May not be fair, may be court-sanctioned, but you are lesser co-parents because this money came between you.
Dana Lin was a stay-at-home mom for most of her marriage, and admits there was a measure of pride in not pursuing alimony or child support in her divorce, even though she could barely support herself — selling her wedding and heirloom jewelry to make ends meet, and not eating for days on end when her children spent time with their dad. She was entitled to $3,000 in monthly support alimony.
Lin, the mother of two grade-school daughters at the time, also didn’t want money complicating her relationship with her children’s father. “I never wanted him to be able to say, ‘I can’t spend time with the kids because I have to work long hours to support you,’” says Lin, who at the time of the split worked part-time as a school office manager for $20 per hour. Today, she says, she has a very friendly relationship with her ex, who “is an amazing father now,” while he was only marginally involved while married.
If you receive alimony, your ex is likely really angry about it. He will question all your lifestyle choices, want to know why you are not earning more yourself, and be resentful of any man who comes into your life — especially if you live together or otherwise share expenses.
All of this makes it so much harder to co-parent. So much more tension, suspicion, and anger — all of which you both need to shed in order to move on with your own lives and come together for your kids.
Alimony hold you back professionally, personally and financially
In most courts, you only get child support or alimony if you earn less than your ex. If that is always on your mind, it is easy to consciously or unconsciously earn less in order to qualify for alimony. That money often makes women less ambitious, less professionally fullfilled, and more resentful of your ex. This is bad for you, a bad example for your children, bad for women, and bad for the pay and wealth gaps. Meanwhile, plenty of women flip the script. Dana Lin was guaranteed alimony as a stay-at-home mom with a high-earning ex-husband. But she turned it down.
“I was very ambitious and had great earning potential,” says Lin, 43. “I didn’t want anyone to say I couldn’t make it without him.” Lin pursued her dream of being a screenwriter, today working as a script doctor and ghostwriter. Two years ago with a partner she launched Zen Life Services, which provides stress training management skills to law enforcement employees. “Living lean taught me to be more disciplined,” she says. “Sometimes if you have too much of a cushion you’re not as aggressive in pursuing your dreams.”
The takeaway? Keep a foot in the workforce, even when your kids are babies. Accept as fact you have a 50 percent chance of being divorced, and even if your husband seems to fully support heading a one-income household, deep down he likely feels very differently — or eventually will. Regardless of what everyone feels, the only feelings that really matter are the judge's. And as more women take the ranks of the courts, there is less legal inclination for alimony — especially when the petitioner is an educated woman who chooses not to earn a living.
Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker,” her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.