More women are paying alimony (as more wives become breadwinners)

June 19, 2018

LAYWER: Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, Esq –

It’s another breakthrough for women, but probably not one that they’re relishing.

A growing number of women are paying alimony and child support when their marriages break up, according to a recent survey of 1,650 lawyers by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Some 54% of the attorneys surveyed have seen an increase in mothers paying child support in the last three years, and 45% noticed an uptick in women paying alimony, AAML found.

The trend could be seen as a sign of women’s growing earning power in the face of America’s persistent gender wage gap, but it can be a bitter pill to swallow who those who experience it firsthand, said AAML president Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, a family law attorney based in Hackensack, New Jersey.

One over-the-top example: A female business executive with a seven-figure income whose husband made far less money than she did ended up supporting her ex’s expensive online pornography habit with her alimony payments, Marzano-Lesnevich told MarketWatch.

Marzano-Lesnevich, who represented the husband, said she successfully argued that those “entertainment” expenses were part of his lifestyle, and the court agreed when it calculated the monthly alimony sum. The wife wasn’t happy about it, to say the least, Marzano-Lesnevich said.

“Many women, no matter how educated, how professional, how modern they are, are surprised to learn that they might have to pay alimony,” said Marzano-Lesnevich. “It’s something that has been ingrained for generations that fathers pay alimony.”

When Marzano-Lesnevich started practicing family law 29 years ago, maybe one case out of 100 involved a woman paying spousal support. Today, it’s about two out of 10 cases. In the past, maybe mom was a kindergarten teacher and dad was working on Wall Street, but it’s not that uncommon today to find dad being a middle school teacher and mom in advertising, she said.

Breadwinning mothers are on the rise

In 1960, just 11% of households with children under 18 had mothers who were the breadwinner. In 2013, moms were the primary provider in a record 40% of families, a 2013 Pew Research Center report found.

Some 31.4% of single dads who have custody of their kids received spousal support in 2016, and 52.3% of moms did, the parenting blog VeryWell Family reported, citing U.S. Census Bureau figures. The average amount of child support was $5,774 per year, or about $329 a month, but only 68.5% of that money was actually received, according to Census data.

‘I literally could not believe it’

Paying alimony is something Sarah Gilbert never thought she would have to do, but the 44-year-old mom of three boys now sends $349 a month to her ex-husband. The Portland, Ore. resident says the experience has made her never want to get married again, even though she’s now in a happy relationship.

Her husband was a stockbroker when they first met, then he left the financial world to join the U.S. Army. After the military, he struggled to find work and was unemployed when they split. Gilbert was working part-time as a bicycle tour guide, making about $1,000 a month, during the divorce.

She was shocked when a judge gave her ex-husband primary custody and ordered Gilbert to pay monthly support. “The jaw dropped out of my mouth,” Gilbert said. “I literally could not believe it. Had I been working a corporate job, I would have expected to pay spousal support to him, but I was a tour guide.”

Female breadwinners going through a divorce will sometimes argue that their husband is “underemployed” and could have earned as much as they did “if he worked as hard as she did,” Marzano-Lesnevich said. “But the reality is, if during the course of the marriage, you allowed him to make less, and took on the role of the breadwinner, you are going to pay that support,” she said.

Leslie Albrecht is a personal finance reporter based in New York. She worked previously as a local news reporter at the New York City neighborhood news website DNAinfo, and as a reporter at the Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star, two McClatchy newspapers in California’s Central Valley. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterLeslie.