The maintenance goes back centuries. The original idea was that a man, once married, would be responsible for a woman until death. But that notion has shifted over the past few decades as more women have jobs and their own money. Now a number of states are considering legislation to end lifelong support.
During his two decades of marriage, Tom Leustek’s wife earned a Ph.D. and got a job that paid as much as he did. He is a college professor in New Jersey.
But she quit to start her own psychological practice, and her salary plummeted. Then they parted. Leustek says he was amazed when a judge sentenced him to life support despite his wife’s clear earning potential.
“When the judge once said to me: ‘This is not fair, Mr Leustek, this is the law’, I decided that something had to be done about it,” he says.
Leustek heads New Jersey Alimony Reform, one of a dozen Massachusetts-based groups. A law that came into force there last year provides for formulas that limit maintenance according to the length of the marriage. Leustek says a similar proposal in New Jersey would also end child support payments when the payer reaches retirement age.
“Imagine if your income goes down significantly, but your payment obligation goes down,” he says. “And the family judge says, ‘Well, come back when you’ve used up all of your property.’ Well, this becomes a nightmare for people. The bottom line is that they can never retire. “
New Jersey businessman Raymond Posa says that doesn’t make sense in his case. “The theory behind this was fine in the 1950s, when everyone was housewives and stayed at home,” says Posa, whose wife quit a well-paying job to raise their children. But after their divorce, she went back to a lower-paying position as a teaching assistant. Posa was sentenced to life alimony. He thinks that is unfair when you consider that women now make up almost half of the workforce.
“It’s like you are unable to stand on your own two feet and have to depend on this person for the rest of your life?” Posa says
Of course, most divorce cases are not about child support at all. If the spouses earn about the same amount, one does not have to pay the other. And yes, the more wives pay child support the more of them outperform their husbands.
But Alton Abramowitz of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers says there are still many women who stay at home who would have a hard time getting back to work.
Maintenance reform proposals punish those who have made sacrifices for a man’s career, “either by giving up their own careers and looking after the household and raising children, or by entertaining business associates and friends to socialize”.
And what about the goal of ending the maintenance in retirement?
“I don’t think that’s fair either, because it doesn’t take into account that the wealthy spouse may still have income from investments,” says Abramowitz.
Reformers say they seek guidance and clarity in a process that can be arbitrary. Abramowitz says judges need discretion to be fair.
Women on both sides also participate in this debate. There are even second wives clubs – working women who complain that their salary subsidizes child support payments to a man’s first wife.
In Florida, Jan Killilea formed a counter-group: First Wives First.
“I know the Florida Alimony Reform claims that this will no longer be left to Beaver. But when you get to Palm Beach County, where I happen to live, you see the mothers who have given up careers,” she says.
In fact, Killilea is surrounded by them. After more than two decades as a housewife, then a divorce, she works as a nanny again. But she says she couldn’t do without her ex’s support. Killilea says maintenance payers are right to invoke “the right to a pension”. But that cuts both ways.
“If we are expected to reinvent ourselves at 50, 60, and 70 after 30 years of inactivity, I would think that someone who could be a surgeon or have a high-risk career would then honor themselves anew would invent their responsibility, ”she says.
The Florida governor recently vetoed the alimony bill, but supporters say they will try again. In New Jersey, lawmakers expect a heated debate if they take up reform proposals anytime soon.