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). …