Welcome to the Alimony Chronicles. This is the first of a four-part series on the history of spousal support, changes over the years, what you can expect today, and most importantly, how it ain’t what it used to be.
Name That Pain
Alimony, as technically defined, is the legal obligation of one spouse to provide financial support to the other during a separation or after a divorce. It’s different from child support, although both spousal and child support payments may be ordered by the court simultaneously.
How It All Began
Contrary to what popular belief may be, it wasn’t somebody’s ticked off wife (or even her mother) who came up with the idea of alimony.
Some of the earliest examples of family law come from ancient Babylon and were discovered carved into a stone slab from 1754 BC when King Hammurabi decreed that if a man wanted to leave a wife who had borne him children, he had to continue to give her a portion of his income, crops and property while she raised them.
Once their kids were grown, he had to provide her a final settlement that was equal to the value of one son.
There were rules for the woman, too. The wife was bound by the law that only after her children were grown was she allowed to “marry the man of her heart”.
Fast Forward Several Thousand Years to English Law
Many old English laws grew from the Code of Hammurabi. The US was formed and its founders brought with them their legal code. In short, a lot of our laws hatched from that ancient text.
One of which was this:
- A man had a duty to support his wife until the marriage ended.
- He could leave his wife, but had to continue by law to provide her with financial support.
- Because marriage did not end until death, those payments had to continue until one of them died.
Actual divorce was allowed by the 19th century but only in cases of serious wrong-doing, like infidelity.
The rules started changing to protect women from situations where the husband had done something terrible and left her in the lurch after the marriage ended. On the other hand, if the wife’s behavior caused the divorce, she gave up the right to ask for money from the husband.
In the United States, as the country’s economy prospered (and men had much bigger paychecks), it was more and more common for women to receive permanent alimony after a divorce. It was especially true if the woman was a stay-at-home wife and mother.
This is the kind of spousal support often depicted in books and movies.
As women became more self-sufficient and became employed outside the home, family law shifted. Women’s lib brought about an era of wives with jobs, separate income streams, and the no-fault divorce. Judges automatically ordering alimony was no longer an ordinary practice.
Today, almost all 50 states have crafted laws granting some option for a no-fault divorce. Meaning that a quickie divorce can be granted if both the husband and wife agree that they no longer get along and have been living apart for a certain period of time.
Despite the option for an easy way out of an uncomfortable marriage, there are still divorces today based on “fault”. And although it doesn’t always factor into the equation, payments to the ex can be awarded in divorces despite fault.
Types of Alimony: It’s Not Just for Women Anymore
Several types were created to accommodate various types of situations. Here are a few.
Temporary alimony is court-ordered support payments to be paid before the divorce is finalized and while the couple is separated.
Permanent support is paid by the former spouse who earned higher income during the marriage. It is paid until one of them dies or the recipient remarries or cohabitates with someone new.
In this scenario, the higher-earning former spouse pays the lower-earning one for a predetermined period of time in order to allow him or her to get a job or complete an educational or training program.
Reimbursement alimony is money ordered to be paid back to the other spouse for expenses incurred during their marriage (like educational expenses).
For example, if the husband worked to support them both while the wife went to medical school, he may be awarded some reimbursement for his efforts that led to her success.
Lump-sum alimony is a form of marriage settlement where one spouse pays the other a one-time payment rather than periodic support payments or instead of dividing property the couple may have gotten during the marriage.
Each State Differs on Spousal Support
Alimony is dealt with differently in each state.
Some judges use complex formulas under statutory laws. Thus giving each side an idea of what that would look like going into a divorce proceeding.
Statutes in a few states are “silent,” with no specific rules set on spousal support. Leaving it entirely to the judge’s discretion can lead to a slug-fest in court. Both sides work hard to influence the decision.
In no-fault proceedings, monetary awards or property division decisions aren’t influenced by the couple’s marital behavior.
However, in a few places (even in no-fault proceedings), if your wife is already shacked up with her boyfriend she can kiss the idea of alimony goodbye, and vice-versa!
You may already know the more common factors affecting spousal support rulings by the court, such as:
Very young people and those married less than two years are not typically awarded alimony. Granted, there are exceptions.
Marriages of ten years or more are much more likely to involve some form of support upon divorcing. Some states count the beginning of the separation as the end of the marriage, but some states do not recognize separation at all.
Judges think highly of one’s standard of living. They will order spousal support to help the couple avoid a dramatic, post-divorce reduction in lifestyle. Income disparities between partners get looked at closely in an aim to help both partners continue the same standard of living they enjoyed together.
Alimony may be awarded if one of the spouses is expected to have a significant increase in future income, like the earlier example of a doctor whose spouse put him through medical school and who will likely command a large increase in salary when his practice is established.
The state of each person’s health is another factor. If the husband or wife is mentally or physically ill and may not be able to work, the court will not want to leave that person destitute.
Yours, Mine and Ours
As our series continues, we will explore the how’s and why’s of spousal support from the wife’s viewpoint, the husband’s viewpoint, and then look at the nuts and bolts of alimony and how it affects both parties.
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Welcome back to The Alimony Chronicles. We've come to the third of four parts. Today we'll be looking at the impact of spousal support on men, then and now. So far: Part 1 was about the origins of family law and the different types of alimony in place today. Part 2 tackled…
Welcome back to The Alimony Chronicles! In this second part of a four-part series, we will be looking at spousal support from the woman’s perspective, past and present. Once Upon A Time In Part 1 we looked at the ancient origins of alimony. We peered into the evolution of family law…
Alimony has its place in divorce, but far too often it is like a punishment for men. Alimony has traditionally been used as a way to get them to stay in a marriage they possibly did not want anymore.
I’ve known several widows and widowers. When your spouse dies, there’s a commonly-shared thread linking them together. No matter the gender, each carried a look on their faces. It read, “I lived through losing half of me.”
Until you’re there, gripped by the swampy muck of grief and sorrow, it’s unbelievable. Death of a spouse isn’t just a one-time-and-now-it’s-over thing. It lingers. When your spouse dies, it reminds you of your own mortality.
Others, who lose their spouses while going through the divorce process to suddenly find it no longer necessary, still have to deal with the finality of it all. All marriages will end, either by death or divorce. There are things you need to know about grief, family, and finances that will help you get through it when your spouse dies before the divorce is final.
Grieving the Wife You Were Divorcing
The death of a spouse is traumatic. Dealing with the death of someone you were once close to is already tough, and your reaction will be even more complicated by the timing and cause of death. Death may end a marriage after a long illness, or abruptly through accident, illness, or suicide.
When Your Spouse Dies After Prolonged Illness
It’s Gonna Hurt
There are bound to be strong emotions when your spouse passes away, even if your pending divorce was “civil”. It is way more difficult to handle the death of someone with whom you have a rocky or difficult relationship.
If you and your wife are no longer on speaking terms, although not yet formally divorced, you will be surprised by your strong feelings about her pending death, even if there is no love remaining in your marriage.
You might have had a hard time deciding if you should go see her, or she may have made it clear she wants nothing to do with you.
When your wife has been sick for a long time, watching her decline will take its toll on family members, even from a distance. When death comes, it is common to feel some relief.
You can be relieved that she isn’t struggling or in pain, but you might also be relieved that it’s finally over. That sense of relief may be followed by guilt. It can be easy to feel guilty about your relief that your wife is gone. However, it is best to acknowledge that twinge of guilt, and just let it go. Your feelings are perfectly normal and understandable.
If you are consumed by guilt, especially if you are second-guessing your role in the final weeks and months of her life, it is important for you to get perspective on the events leading to your wife’s death.
It is normal to wish and even pray for everything to just be over in the final days, but your thoughts did not “rush” her death. Speak to your wife’s doctor, a counselor, or your pastor about your questions. They will respect your concerns and provide reassurance that you did not cause or hasten her death.
You Hate Her Guts and She’s Dying – What Do you Tell the Kids?
If you are separated from your wife in a contentious split, and there are children involved, your stress and anger will be through the roof.
Take a deep breath and hold back. Your kids need you to protect them, even if it means protecting them from your feelings about their mother.
Grief counseling is always a good idea for kids losing a parent, but in a situation where you hate their mom, you should get professional help on how to guide and support your children through the loss of their mother.
You can get help through social services, pastoral care, or your local hospice organization. Hospice services for grief and bereavement counseling are generally available to anyone who is facing a pending death or grieving a loss that has already occurred.
Hospice services may be available to you for free, even if your spouse is not a hospice patient, or if she is a patient in a hospice program in another community.
When children are involved, don’t wait until there are behavioral problems. Be proactive and get the counseling support you’ll need to help them before and after your spouse dies.
When Your Wife Dies Unexpectedly
Whether from an acute illness, accident or suicide, the unexpected death of a spouse will rock your world. Even if you were separated, you may be involved in making final arrangements for burial or cremation and a funeral. The initial days following an unexpected death may go by in a fog. Let your family and friends help you, especially if you have children.
There is no right or wrong about the way you will feel. Take your time and understand that profound sadness or anger may come in waves. Crying is normal, and the necessary component to bereavement. Even the strongest man sheds tears of grief. There is no timeline, and often you’ll find there’s no rhyme or reason to the things that can trigger a wave of grief.
When a Marriage is Ended by Suicide
The confusion, guilt, and grief that follows the suicide of a spouse can be totally overwhelming. The emotions that you feel in the situation surrounding the suicide may be especially complicated if you and your spouse were separated at the time of her suicide.
The majority of suicides are the result of severe depression or related mental health issues. You may be slammed with all the emotions of any other grieving person, with the added burden of wondering if you or other family members somehow failed to recognize the symptoms or prevent the suicide.
Custody of Your Kids if Your Wife Dies
In a lot of states, the custodial right – meaning who the children will live with – automatically goes to the surviving parent. But that is not every state, and you may have to go to court if you want to have permanent custodial rights over your children, especially if your wife had full custody before she died.
Your settlement or legal custody plans will be important for the court to consider if there are any challenges to you having the primary custody of your kids, but will not make it a slam dunk.
For example, in Georgia, the law provides for children to go to the other parent after death, but in this case it happened differently. The dad was the parent who had custody of the child. In the separation agreement and divorce decree, it was spelled out that both parents wanted the child to go to the aunt if the father died. After he died, the mother tried to get full custody and so did the aunt. The courts ultimately determined that the aunt should have custody, not because of the divorce decree, but because the mother was found to be unfit due to addiction problems.
Property and Financial Issues When Death Ends the Marriage
Don’t assume that your wife’s property and assets automatically go to you if she dies without a will. There are some states where a pending divorce action causes the state to holds onto the deceased spouse’s property until a decision is made on distribution to her estate or otherwise.
If there is a will, a trust, or probate must be opened, you should consult an attorney. Remember that attorneys are specialized, just like doctors. Start with the attorney representing you in the pending divorce for relevant clauses that may be in your separation agreement. For probate questions, your best bet is to talk to an experienced estate attorney in your area.
Even if your wife had no children, and she didn’t have real estate or valuable belongings, there may still be valuable assets to consider. Did she have life insurance through her employer? Did she have a 401K or other type of retirement or pension plan? Some types of plans may have spousal benefits after death.
Tell Us Your Story
Do you have questions or knowledge about marriages ending in death? Please share your story in the comments below.
For related Guyvorce articles on death, grieving, wills, and estate issues check out Defining Beneficiaries In Your Post-Divorce Will And Estate Plans and The 5 Stages of Grieving a Relationship after Divorce.
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