Kevin, a 48-year-old graphic designer based in Jersey City, lived on alimony from his wife for four years, beginning in 2013. “She’s an attorney, and our income was pretty even before the recession,” he tells me. “But I lost my job in 2009, and wasn’t able to make up the income working freelance.” He and his wife have two kids, and he says the financial strain following his job loss ruined their nine-year marriage. “My freelance income was less than a quarter of my previous salary,” he continues. “My worst year I earned $11,000, while she was in the low six figures.” After their divorce, he won four years of alimony, covering rent on an apartment near his kids so that they could stay with him some of the time.
Kevin’s situation was unusual: According to 2010 census data, only three percent of the 400,000 people receiving alimony were men. Alimony — which is also called spousal support or maintenance — has historically only been awarded to women, who have been denied property rights within marriages and access to outside employment for centuries. The 1979 case of Orr v. Orr, however, established that a law in Alabama imposing alimony obligations on husbands but not wives was unconstitutional, turning alimony into a gender-neutral legal concept in the U.S. and opening the door for men to benefit. And as workplaces become more egalitarian and women increasingly take on the role of primary breadwinners in households, that three percent figure is set to rise. Last year, a survey of 1,600 matrimonial lawyers found that 45 percent had noticed an increase in the number of men who are receiving alimony.
Emily Rubenstein, a family law attorney in L.A., says that while she hasn’t personally noticed an uptick in her own practice, it makes sense to her that changing gender roles will impact the amount of men receiving alimony from their wives. “In California, a court decides whether to grant spousal support based on a variety of factors, including the extent to which one spouse’s earning capacity is impaired by periods of unemployment incurred to devote time to domestic duties,” she explains. “In our society, women obviously tend to take on a higher proportion of domestic caretaking duties at the expense of their professional growth, so this provision is more often applicable to women, but it can, and does, apply to men in that position as well.”
Despite receiving an alimony award, Kevin says that, in general, his wife did more of the domestic labor throughout the course of their relationship. “Before the separation, she was working part-time to spend more time with the kids, while I worked full-time,” he says. While he was struggling as a freelancer, their kids were in school, so there was less need for Kevin to be home for them. “I took care of them after school a couple days a week,” he continues, adding that he also taught art to kids part-time. “But my wife did hire a nanny on other days while we worked.” After they split, the lawyers agreed that Kevin’s income should have been around $60,000, so his wife was ordered to pay him $24,000 a year for four years.
Divorced from its historical raison d’etre, some commentators have suggested that alimony should be abolished. Emma Johnson, a Forbes columnist, argues that alimony “today hurts women,” advocating for women to maintain their careers throughout marriage rather than rely on the prospect of spousal support. She cites research showing that marriages in which there’s income parity and an equal split of domestic duties have a 48 percent lower chance of divorce than average, and also touts the emotional benefits. “The biggest reason no alimony is great for women is that without it, each party is allowed to move on with their lives,” she writes. “Living off a check from an ex only keeps you emotionally embroiled in a marriage that is now over.”
Rubenstein, though, tends to disagree. “Alimony generally helps people get back on their financial feet after they’ve dedicated themselves to domestic duties or child caretaking at the expense of their own professional growth,” she says. “It’s an imperfect system, but it’s necessary and equitable in most cases where it’s ordered.”
Alimony is an area where, despite societal advances toward gender equality, traditional gender roles within marriage still loom large. This is both because we haven’t advanced as far as we like to think — 69 percent of men are still the breadwinners in their households, and women still do the lion’s share of domestic labor — and traditional gender roles still inform how judges, spouses, friends and family members think about the prospect of men receiving alimony. “I do think that they face stigma, as masculinity in our culture is so tied to being able to provide financially,” Rubenstein tells me. “Also, male clients at times face the (usually) unintentional cultural biases of judges.”
On this latter point, she explains that the law requires judges to evaluate whether a spouse is underemployed or making sufficient efforts to become self-supporting, and judges with traditional gender views may treat men more strictly in this regard. “Judges are human beings like you and me,” she continues. “They come to the bench with their own life experiences and perspectives, which can theoretically inadvertently inform or bias decisions.”
While Kevin says he generally didn’t feel any shame about requesting or receiving alimony, he was warned by his lawyers that the judge assigned to his case didn’t look favorably on men. “I had ridden my bike to the courthouse and had my bike helmet on the seat next to me,” he explains. “The judge asked me if I brought my helmet because I’d heard of her reputation.” Fortunately, he says, her role was largely to rubber stamp the agreement he and his now ex-wife had already negotiated, and any bias she may have had against men didn’t prevent her from awarding alimony and ordering Kevin’s wife to pay a portion of his legal fees, which amounted to $8,500.
Divorce law is a contentious, lightning rod topic, in which Men’s Rights Activists argue (dubiously) that there’s strong bias against men in the courtroom, and spouses — whether they’re male or female — are likely to find the process stressful, emotional and expensive. Kevin is no exception. “For me, it was frustrating because we were ending an 18-year relationship, and I felt left out in the cold,” he says. “I was struggling to get on my feet financially after the Great Recession, and I had to really fight for any kind of support.” He now works full-time and no longer receives alimony.
“I’m glad it’s over,” he adds. “I’m in a much better place now.”