AMY WILLIAMS, 38, never imagined she’d end up a single mother of two paying alimony to an ex-husband. Yet that’s exactly where the media executive found herself when her 10-year marriage dissolved in 2004.
During the early years of the relationship, Williams (whose name we changed due to privacy concerns) supported her husband while he completed his Ph.D. in history. The assumption, she says, was that he would find a job in academia. That day never arrived. He was unable to find work, but also didn’t want to be the primary caregiver for their kids. So Williams paid for child care.
When the two decided to part ways, it quickly became clear that Williams wouldn’t be able to simply walk away. Why? According to family law, Williams was the primary breadwinner and her husband was viewed as a dependant spouse who needed help getting back on his feet. With the help of a mediator, the couple reached a financial agreement: In addition to splitting their assets, Williams agreed to give her ex-spouse $15,000 for a car and pay $14,000 in financial support spread out over 14 months.
"My feeling was that I worked hard while he was trying to figure out a career," says Williams. "I was penalized for that during the marriage and then after it ended."
You don’t have to be as successful as Britney Spears or Reese Witherspoon to fear getting sued for alimony. Like Williams, more and more women today are obligated to pay their ex-spouses some form of financial support, says celebrity divorce attorney Raoul Felder. While there are no official statistics on this trend, wives are the primary breadwinners in one-third of all marriages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leaving them at risk of paying maintenance should the union fail. "Call it the dark side of the liberation coin," says Felder.
Historically, it was men who were obligated to pay alimony based on the assumption that women couldn’t support themselves, says Alan Feigenbaum, co-author of "The Complete Guide to Protecting Your Financial Security When Getting a Divorce." This was indeed the case back in the 1950s and 1960s when most wives were homemakers and cared for the children. In the ’70s, however, society and divorce laws shifted. Women entered the work force in larger numbers and family laws regarding marital support were made gender neutral. What hasn’t significantly changed, however, is that women are the primary caregivers of the children. So not only are these wives supporting their husbands, they’re also caring for the kids.
Today, both men and women are equally eligible for some form of alimony if one is dependent on the other for financial support, regardless of who takes care of the kids. But here’s some good news for women who hold the purse strings: The days when judges would easily grant long-term support are over, says Feigenbaum — especially for marriages that last fewer than 10 years. While every state differs, typically the dependent spouse is granted temporary maintenance based on the length of the marriage or what’s called "rehabilitative support" until he can get back on his feet. During this time the underemployed spouse may go back to school for another degree or get career training to update outdated skills.
In Williams’s case, she desperately wanted her husband to find a job. But the law favors the status quo. In other words, since Williams allowed her husband to stay home while they were together, she was obligated to continue to support him until he could pay his own bills. "[This situation] is not much different than when a woman says she gave up her career for the kids but has a full-time nanny" says Daniel Clement, a New York-based divorce attorney.
Despite gender-neutral laws, women do have at least one thing in their favor. Even when the law says dependent husbands are entitled to financial support, some attorneys say they have seen a stigma facing those who ask for support.
"When judges see a man asking for alimony they think ‘what’s wrong with you,’" says Sandra Morgan Little, past chair of the American Bar Association Family Law Section.
Some men say they feel the stigma, as well. When John Bailey, a 31-year-old graduate student (who also asked that we change his name), got divorced he chose to walk away with nothing. He didn’t even take the 50% of the marital assets he was entitled to. He felt the assets were his wife’s property since she earned them while he studied. "[At the time] I had no income," he says. "It was bad. But I didn’t want to be that guy who was getting [alimony] from his ex-wife."
Not all women will get off so easily. Nor should they, lawyers argue. If women want equality in the work force, they will also have to take on the responsibilities attached to a higher salary, says Little. In cases of divorce, that responsibility is paying alimony.
While state laws vary, most couples can expect to split marital assets earned during the marriage. Here’s some advice for keeping the rest of your money safe:
Keep Premarital Assets Separate
Keep what’s yours. Any money one spouse brings into a marriage before the wedding is considered separate property should the couple get divorced. There is one important exception to the rule. If the wife, for example, commingles the funds in a joint bank account or spends it on something for the couple the assets are then viewed as joint property, says Emily Doskow, an attorney and author of "Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce."
Protect Your Inheritance
In most states an inheritance, regardless of when you receive the money, is also viewed as separate property, unless you gift it to your spouse. Again, if you put the money into a joint account or spend it on something for the couple the assets are converted into marital property, says attorney Daniel Clement.
Ask for a Prenup
It might not be romantic, but if you want to limit your future losses you had better ask your groom or bride for a prenuptial agreement. "No one ever enters a marriage thinking they are going to get divorced," says Little. "Yet half of marriages do fail."
Watch the Clock
If your marriage is essentially over and you simply haven’t gotten around to filing the paper work, get on it. Alimony is partly based on the number of years you’re married. And once a marriage is deemed long term (10 years or longer), one spouse may be required to pay support indefinitely.
Help Your Spouse Find a Job
Feel like your spouse is a freeloader? Tell him to get a job before you file for divorce or risk paying alimony. Courts favor the status quo. If it seems you allowed your spouse not to work during the marriage, then you could be responsible to help support that person after the union dissolves, says Feigenbaum.