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Is gender bias keeping men from seeking appropriate alimony?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 3 percent of men receive alimony after divorce, even though 37 percent of married women earn more than their husbands. Under Massachusetts family law and the laws of most states, gender is not to be considered as a factor when determining whether alimony is appropriate, and presumably men and women are in similar positions when divorcing higher-earning partners. So what explains such a substantial difference between alimony awards to men versus women?

According to a divorce lawyer who recently wrote an article on the subject for the Huffington Post, the answer may be that men simply do not seek alimony as part of their divorce settlements. He discusses a case his firm handled in Nebraska in which a divorcing husband was awarded alimony under pretty ordinary circumstances but had the award appealed because it was not need-based.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals upheld the award, as alimony in Nebraska is not required to be based on need -- for either men or women -- but can be ordered based on the receiving spouse’s contributions to the marriage and lower income or earning capacity. While Massachusetts has somewhat different rules for awarding alimony than Nebraska, the principle that the decision to award the support should not be based on gender applies in both.

In the experience of the Huffington Post writer, men generally don’t seek alimony because of societal stigma and because they don’t think it’s worth the stress of litigation. Many men, however unjustly, feel a sense of inadequacy when they don’t make as much as their wives anyway, and asking for financial support after a divorce exacerbates those feelings. Unfortunately, some men who seek alimony are falsely accused of doing so out of animus or revenge, and traditional attitudes among some family courts can make even a fully justified alimony award hard to achieve.

A spouse’s value to the marriage does not depend upon financial contributions alone, of course, but upon other services and supports that contribute to the economic viability of the marriage. The “Honey do” list, cleaning, child care and such deserve fair consideration in marital property and alimony awards.

As the economic status of women continues to rise in the U.S., more men will be put in the position of seeking appropriate spousal support after divorce. The next step in gender equity may be for them to step up and do so.

Source: Huffington Post, “Why Don’t More Men Ask for Alimony?” Joseph E. Cordell, June 26, 2013

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