After two decades of decline, alimony has begun to make a resurgence in American divorce law, due in part to a renewed focus on the job sacrifices women often make throughout a marriage and the value of their traditional role as family caretakers.
Originally conceived as a support system for homemaking spouses unable to make a living for themselves, alimony had fallen out of favor since the advent of feminism in the early 1970s.
Indeed, since then women have made great strides toward self- sufficiency. Yet for women 25 and older, the earning gap has remained nearly 76 cents on the dollar earned by men, supporting the notion that many women make sacrifices in their marriage years that significantly reduce their earning power.
As a result, some courts and state legislatures are rethinking alimony law. The notion of short-term awards, aimed at nudging divorced homemakers into the workplace and toward economic independence, is being tempered by the idea that ex-wives sometimes need long-term support from former spouses.
"We're moving into a new discussion about [alimony]," says Mary Frances Lyle, co-chair of the American Bar Association's alimony committee. "At the peak of the women's movement ... there was a strong attitude of 'You want equality and independence, you got it baby,' " she says. "But now we're beginning to see that it's a much more complex issue than that."
The shift has been gradual, slowly and inconsistently filtering into family-law courts. Even so, it signifies a growing desire to compensate spouses who make career sacrifices to support a marriage that fails, regardless of their ability to support themselves at a certain minimum level.
Several factors are working to bring renewed focus on alimony in divorce law, family lawyers say. One is the wage gap. Another is the nationwide effort to trim welfare rolls. It has prompted a realization that spouses who don't provide for exes often leave the state holding the tab.
Trial judges have been known to show sensitivity to this issue, says Steven Fuchs, a Boston lawyer and general manager of the DivorceNet Web site. "If a woman is going to be destitute, judges will often consider that in her award even if they don't think she really deserves it," he says. "They'd rather [put the burden on] the ex than put the woman on the public [dole]."
But alimony is a fractured area of law, in part because state officials have been reluctant to take up the issue. Therefore, alimony rules are often the result of judicial interpretation. That can result in considerable variation from region to region and even courtroom to courtroom.
Several state Supreme Court decisions earlier this decade, however, have laid the groundwork for the new interpretation of alimony's purpose. In recent months, courts and state officials have added to the momentum with a handful of decisions.
*Last month, California Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed a bill allowing former spouses to receive alimony payments longer. The legislation overturned a law that said alimony payments should continue for only half the length of a long-term marriage (one that lasted more than 10 years). …