On the Origin of Alimony
A Modern Opinion on an Antiquated Practice
Groucho Marx once said, “Paying alimony is like feeding hay to a dead horse.” Ironically, that works when you think of the word alimony. The word itself comes from the Latin words ‘Alere’ and ‘ment’ – ‘Alere’ means ‘nourish’, while ‘-ment’ forms the word “mony” or money.
In essence, alimony refers to the act of eating money. If you are not fond of your ex, I cannot think of a more apt expression than the one Marx uttered close to 100 years ago. Plus, he would know. He married 3 times. A master at feeding money to women! However, it is also interesting to understand the origins of alimony in the US.
Origins of Alimony
Divorce is one of the oldest traditions in our society. Well, after marriage that is. Not surprisingly, the first laws regarding alimony were developed early. The earliest mention of alimony is in the Code of Hammurabi. Married women who bore children for a man were permitted access to fields, garden, and property. This gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘plowed over’.
The Romans had some crazy alimony laws. For example, a man could divorce his wife if he learned that she was part or aware of a plot against the government, but did not tell him about it. If she bathed with strangers or went to the circus or theater against his wishes she could be finished with. Finally, he even got to put a few more coins in his toga if he caught her cheating. He would get all the pre-nuptial gifts, the dowry, and 1/3 of any property she possessed. On a more disturbing front, he was allowed to kill her if he caught her in the middle of adultery.
While they did have some of the first rules which stated that divorced women must be kept in reasonable style, it was not until ecclesial England that the modern alimony laws came into shape. The reason it came about was that back in merry OLDE ENGLAND, divorce was not legalized until 1857. Until then, they could only get a legal separation. Since married women could not own property, their husbands were legally responsible for supporting them.
Across the pond, the legal code of the United States adopted many of these concepts. That is why it is also called spousal support. Additionally, the original idea was that spousal support was intended to repair the emotional pain caused by the offending spouse. Since all original divorces were at-fault affairs, this is very important.
Spousal support enables a justice system to place blame and support of the divorce on one side. It’s sort of like blaming the dog for not being walked, because you had bills to pay. It just doesn’t make sense. Rodney Dangerfield put it best, “When I got divorced, it was group sex. My wife screwed me in front of the jury.”
Consider the case of a New York man who divorced a woman he married in 1966. In 2009, the woman – who had been receiving a lifetime supply of $100 checks from her ex – requested an additional $100,000 from him. This was due to the numerous physical and mental handicaps she suffered.
While the story was sad, it is a reminder that back in the 1960’s there was no such thing as a no-fault divorce. Instead, one party was responsible for the divorce. In this case, a man paid over $45,600 to a woman he had no association with in over 35 years after his divorce. The woman wanted him to be responsible for her troubles. The judge disagreed, and sanity returned to the land. However, the man had to pay additional money for the lawyer and court costs. It’s a sad reminder of how alimony has become the cherry on top of the divorce mud pie.
The evolution of women’s rights and the end of
Women today are equal in law and spirit. Yet, only 3% of women provide spousal support to their exes. I completely believe in equality. What seems equal to you about this number?
Before diving into this argument, I need to backtrack for a second. I know that it is not completely possible to have equality when a number of women spent decades raising kids instead of working. They deserve alimony, but not so for childless, short-term marriages.
Women are no longer property or restricted from owning property. Furthermore, numerous women have attained positions of great regard in today’s society. They are no longer the weaker sex envisioned in England when divorce was legalized.
I would argue that men today have less than a few qualms about working under women bosses. Heck, if you were married before, you already had one female boss. What difference does it make if the setting is professional or private?
Furthermore, women comprise as much of the job market as men. Why should a woman get a divorce-bonus when they have a degree and full-time job? It is just unnatural that we continue to believe in a system that not only tears couples apart but also requires one side to be financially responsible for the entire incident.
Which brings up another point. In nature, pair bonds happen that genetically bring together many monogamous couples.
Alimony only occurs as a result of divorce and is, therefore, the disruption of this biological process. If Darwin discovered the theory of evolution, should we credit gold diggers with the theory of unnatural selection?
In a society devoted to helping people move on after PTSD and many other emotional incidents, the time frames attached to alimony payments for some couples are shocking.
If we are to believe in the Constitution of the United States, then this would be cruel and unusual punishment. According to the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, “…cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted.” Justice William Brennan partially defined this with the phrase that the punishment must not “…be degrading to human dignity.”
Lifetime alimony falls under that definition. Forcing men to live a lesser life or invading the privacy of those in their household (Oregon permits financial reviews of girlfriends, etc.) seems like a “severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion.”
How The Origins of Alimony Lead To…
Speaking of psychological scares, let’s talk about how some of these original alimony laws lead to the following:
- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi must pay a whopping $4 million per month in alimony payments.
- In comparison, actor Charlie Sheen gets off easy. He only pays $1.3 million per year to two different women he has kids with.
Robin Williams jokingly mentioned how the divorce judge said, “All the money, and we’ll just shorten it to ‘alimony.’” As a veteran of comedy and divorce, he understood the implicit imbalances of the system.
Alimony comes from a time when men and women were according to the law to separate, unequal entities. The history of the United States has been one that has yielded to the women’s liberation movement and has changed with the times.
In Merry Olde England, women did not have the right to own property, divorce, or be in charge of their future. Today, women are an active part of the workforce. They have the same legal rights as men and the same access to education and jobs.
While some inequalities in income still exist, a system where 30-50% of a man’s income automatically goes to his wife for lengthy periods of time is not beneficial.
‘Tis time for a change! Let us know in the comments your favorite reason why it is time to update the alimony laws in this fair nation of ours.