UK: Law Commission Recommends Deep Cuts to Spousal Support

September 12th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The British coalition government has issued recommendations to dramatically overhaul the law governing spousal maintenance.  Sadly, this article doesn’t actually provide the wording of the proposal, but it appears the government’s intention is to significantly scale back spousal maintenance payments and eliminate lifetime ones (London Evening Standard, 9/11/12).

Bumper lifetime divorce payments would be dramatically scaled back under landmark reforms to family law unveiled today.

The Law Commission announced moves to limit “joint live spousal maintenance” — where the wealthier partner is ordered to support the other until their ex re-marries or dies.

Although the move has been excoriated as a “blow to women” who receive the lion’s share of spousal maintenance orders, the government seems bent on reform.

However, a consultation by the Law Commission, which will lead to a report to ministers in 2013, today said there was a “lack of a principled basis for a law which in practice appears to aim to award lifelong support at the marital standard of living”.

It’s what I’ve been saying all along, and I’m glad to see the commission stating the matter so forthrightly.  Alimony of course is an artifact of days long gone by.  When women were seen as unable to support themselves and marriage was seriously intended to last a lifetime, the argument could sensibly be made that the husband needed to support his ex in the unusual event of divorce.  Now, back in the 20s and 30s, newspaper articles in this country often pointed out that women sometimes took advantage of the law and used marriage simply as a lifetime meal ticket.  They cited the women’s multiple marriages, divorces and alimony payments to support their case.

But clearly now, when women do almost as much paid work as do men, and when they make up the majority of those holding professional and management jobs (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), protecting the delicate flower of American womanhood via lifetime alimony no longer makes sense.  That’s doubly true given the fact that the divorce rate is about half the marriage rate, so the assumption that marriage is for life no longer holds.  Then there’s the fact that state governments probably shouldn’t be giving lower-earning spouses quite such a sumptuous reward for divorcing.  Politicians talk a good game about supporting the Family and Family Values, but I can’t think of a better way of ensuring family break-up than by offering large continuing cash payments for doing so.

What’s true here is true in Great Britain.  Both spouses should be expected to work and earn, irrespective of their marital status; it’s just too hard to support a family without both adults helping out.  And if one chooses a career, like teaching, that promises lower financial rewards than many others, there’s no possible way that decision should continue to be the responsibility of the other person post-divorce.  The idea that, for some unknown reason, a person’s standard of living should remain unchanged following divorce makes no sense.  If you go for a low-paying career, you reduce your family’s standard of living; if you get divorced, yours will be reduced to that which you can afford according to the choices you made.  What’s wrong with that?

Finally, large alimony orders discourage recipients from becoming productive citizens.  If the ex is paying you far more than you need to live on, why get a job?  Why do anything productive?  Indeed, one of the reasons for the government’s recommendation stems from exactly such a case.

The move comes after several controversial divorce settlements. In 2006, Ken McFarlane, a partner with the accountants Deloitte, lost his appeal against a £250,000-a-year lifetime maintenance award to his wife Julia, a successful former lawyer who claimed that she had abandoned a high-flying career when she married 18 years earlier.

Mr McFarlane argued that his ex-partner was able to return to work.

Of course she was, but why would she?

Today, Mark Harper, partner at international law firm Withers, said: “These proposals have taken me by surprise. Almost always, this will benefit men more than women since most maintenance orders are made against husbands.

“Where a wife can genuinely earn enough money to live off, clearly it seems unfair for a high level of spouse maintenance to be paid indefinitely.”

As with the very modest proposal to encourage judges to give fathers more parenting time, expect to see this one opposed, and my guess is by the very same people.

The cynical will say that the government has finally gotten around to limiting alimony at exactly the time men may start to benefit from it.  After all, in many marriages, women are now the chief earner.  That means that they’d be the ones paying in the event of divorce, so it must be time to cut back on what higher earners are required to pay.  I can’t disagree with that, but right is right, and anyone who can support him/herself should do so and not expect to be supported by the spouse they no longer want to live with.

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