Alimony: An Anomaly in Family Social Science

By Shehan, Constance L.; Berardo, Felix M. et al. | Family Relations, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Alimony: An Anomaly in Family Social Science


Shehan, Constance L., Berardo, Felix M., Owens, Erica, Berardo, Donna H., Family Relations


Alimony: An Anomaly in Family Social Science*

One area of family law that has generated considerable public discourse but has received relatively little attention in the social science literature is the awarding of alimony. Because of the paucity of research in this area, we are left with little information about the impact of these support awards and payments on the emotional and economic dynamics between former spouses. In this article, we outline key issues associated with spousal support and call for research on the implications of this neglected aspect of domestic relations.

Key Words: alimony, divorce, family, law, spouse, support.

Legal scholars have long noted that few aspects of the law, especially in terms of application, can be neatly categorized as either black or white. Rather, the majority of laws, based upon judicial precedent and interpretation, tend to fall into a wide gray area subject to circumstance and changing social mores. Perhaps this chameleon-like character of our legal doctrines is most apparent in domestic law, particularly marital dissolution and spousal-child support. As Foote (1966) noted decades ago:

There is scarcely any branch of family law that illustrates more graphically the characteristic gap between the law on the books and the law in action than the enforcement of support. Troublesome as are some of the legal doctrines, they barely give an inkling of the practical difficulties that lie beneath the surface. (p. 936)

This article focuses on one of the more controversial and emotional outcomes of marital dissolution, the awarding of alimony. This type of post-divorce reallocation of assets also is referred to by a variety of other terms, including separate maintenance, spousal support, and compensatory payment. Reliable information on the prevalence of alimony is difficult to obtain. The most accurate national data come from the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2000). In relative terms, alimony awards are currently-and have historically been-rare in the United States. The proportion of divorces in which it has been awarded has seldom exceeded 15% (Kelly & Fox, 1993). In absolute terms, however, alimony awards take on more significance. Given that more than one million divorces have occurred in the United States every year for the past 20 years, the annual number of marriages affected would reach at least 150,000. When children as well as their divorced parents are included, the individuals involved could be several times higher. Because the types of alimony and the amounts typically awarded vary considerably from state to state according to existing statutes, local customs, and extent of migratory divorce, among other factors, estimating the true incidence and significance of alimony is extremely difficult.

Our purpose is to outline key issues associated with spousal support and to raise a number of questions with respect to the social consequences and implications of such awards for families. We provide an overview of the historical background and current knowledge concerning alimony. Although noticeable progress has been made in illuminating the postdivorce transfer of economic resources, especially with respect to child support, we still need to reckon with Foote's (1966) observation that we lack major scientific investigations designed to determine the complexities and social consequences of alimony. For example, what are the consequences when husbands are jailed for failure to make court-ordered payments? Do alimony decisions have different outcomes in community property states?

The vast majority of documented information on this topic comes from the legal literature. In recent years, there also have been several Internet sites dealing with this topic that provide advice and information to the general public. Studies of the consequences of alimony are rare in the social sciences. Indeed, one could argue that the social science literature in this area is almost nonexistent (Kelly & Fox, 1993). …

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