The picture of equality looks awfully strange to Kim Shamsky. The 47-year-old business owner pays her ex, a 65-year-old retired Major League Baseball player, thousands per month in temporary spousal support.
He’s not seeking alimony to help pay for the kids’ birthday parties, since they don’t have children. Nor was he instrumental in building her business. They married seven years after she started a handful of staffing firms and amassed a small fortune on her own. The daughter of a New York City taxi driver, Shamsky started her first staffing agency at age 27 with the help of a 21% loan. Not only was she able to make her first business profitable, but she’s also worked furiously to ensure the success of all five businesses she’s started since. Small wonder she is outraged at having to pay thousands of dollars a month to her ex.
"He used to scream and throw tantrums and demand more money," Shamsky says of her ex-husband. "It was like he thought, ‘Hey, you have money, why shouldn’t I?’" She adds flatly: "I will never marry again. And I’m getting T-shirts made with the word ‘prenup’ written across the chest."
No doubt Shamsky would find more than a few buyers for the shirts. The idea that men can receive spousal support from their wives may feel like a freakish concept, but as women have become higher earners, it’s increasingly common.
And as men set their sights on women’s earnings, women have become more protective of those dollars. In fact, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 44% of attorneys included in a recent survey said they’ve seen an increase in women asking for prenuptial agreements over the last five years, where in previous decades, prenuptial agreements were almost always sought by men.
A lot of women are indignant now that the shoe is increasingly on the other foot, says Carol Ann Wilson, a certified financial divorce practitioner in Boulder, Colo. "There’s this sense of, ‘What’s yours is ours, but what’s mine is mine,’" Wilson says. "My first response to that is, ‘All these years we have been looking for equality; well, this is what it looks like.’ I think women get angrier about having to pay than men do."
The ordeal has been played up in gossip magazines and tabloids, which have closely followed countless examples of celebrity breakups in which men have sought, or have threatened to seek, spousal support. Teen idol and crooner Nick Lachey reportedly requested the right to seek spousal support from ex-wife pop singer Jessica Simpson last year. (Lachey is seven years older than Simpson and reportedly worth significantly less.) In another splashy case, Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson sought $18,000 per month from actress Kirstie Alley when they divorced, just to cover the rent on his Bel Air home.
But Wilson emphasizes that it’s not just actresses or the wealthiest women who are seeking prenuptial agreements or paying spousal support. "I’ve seen thousands of clients," she says, "and almost every time I’ve seen a stay-at-home dad seek alimony, the wife–she’s usually a software executive–goes ballistic."
Some women find it’s not a battle worth fighting, according to Cheryl Lynn Hepfer, the Rockville, Md.-based president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Hepfer says she’s seen women who have happily chosen to pay off their husbands in an effort to maintain their sanity and keep the peace.
"I once represented a wealthy woman who had the wherewithal to pay $6,000 a month to her husband–and this was probably 10 years ago–so she paid him," Hepfer says, adding that the client also gave her ex the boat and the house on the water. "She wasn’t bitter about it at all. She was a business woman, and for her, this was a business decision." Hepfer says she did it to preserve the relationship with her former husband and their two children. "She knew it would be beneficial for the kids."
Just as some women object to men’s request for spousal support, some men are particularly uncomfortable seeking it. Either they find it emasculating to ask, or they find the idea of receiving an allowance from their ex-wives humiliating, according to divorce attorneys.
"The fact is that you still don’t see too many cases where men seek alimony," says William Beslow, a divorce attorney in New York City. "One reason is that although women may earn more than men, they often wind up with custody of the children, and when a woman takes up primary responsibility for the children, men don’t request maintenance."
Some men avoid the embarrassment by seeking a bigger bite of the marital assets instead of asking for alimony. Not only do lump-sum payments save them the humiliation of accepting monthly support, but they also reduce the ex-husband’s taxes, since spousal support payments are taxed, while assets are not.
On the flip side, in those situations when men receive assets, women lose their tax benefit, because spousal support is tax-deductible, Hepfer notes. The upshot: Even if it’s easier to settle with one swift payment, consult an accountant first to learn the tax consequences. It may be better for you financially to pay alimony.
Kim Shamsky admits she’s angry about paying her ex-husband spousal support mostly because he’s a man. After all, men are supposed to be breadwinners, not bread takers.
"A real man just wouldn’t do this sort of thing," she says. "Maybe it’s my Italian upbringing, but I don’t think it’s right."
Right or not, as women’s earnings grow, so will their financial responsibility during divorce. That’s equality for you.