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March 31, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Ouch! That shoe really pinches when it’s on the other foot.

This article is written by a woman who’s complaining about one of the many things men often gripe about regarding divorce – property division (Daily Mail, 3/28/16).

Throughout the English-speaking world, divorce laws relating to property favor the lower-earning spouse. Usually, that spouse is the woman who walks away with assets she either didn’t earn equally or didn’t earn at all. But, at least on paper, laws regarding marital property are written and sometimes applied without regard to sex. So when laws meant to protect women end up hurting them, they’re often none too happy about the fact. Indeed, their complaints often sound much like men’s in the same position.

That’s where we find Jane Pearson, the author of the DM piece. It seems she and her sister run the family property business (irony of ironies) and apparently do quite well. She married a man, Steve Horrey, who operated a small online jewelry business that was struggling, although he says it’s making a profit now. Things proceeded well for eight years, but then Horrey told Pearson he was opting for no-fault divorce.

Shortly after that announcement she heard from his solicitors.

So on the summer night almost two years ago, when my husband Steve told me he was leaving me, I was totally shocked. It was as if my steadfast, calm and dependable husband had gone out and been replaced by an evil twin.

A mere three months later I was in for another nasty surprise when Steve demanded a settlement of £300,000 — a sum the courts have since decreed I must pay him. This, despite the fact he did not support me during our marriage and lived rent-free in my home, from where he ran his businesses.

Steve, the law dictated, needed a share of my money because — as a result of injudicious financial decisions — he had no home. And it was down to me, the wealthier partner who had always been prudent with my money, to give him sufficient funds to provide him with a roof over his head.

How many men have made the same complaint? “She didn’t contribute a penny to the marriage, didn’t pay the mortgage, didn’t pay for food, insurance, cars… nothing! So why does she get half?” It’s a good question and one the law makes no pretense of answering. I suspect it doesn’t because, in the great majority of divorces, it’s the woman who benefits financially. Men throughout the Western world and elsewhere work and earn more than do women, so the result of divorce is usually a transfer of assets from men to women.

That’s true even if there are no children, as in Pearson and Horrey’s case, and even more so if there are. The flow of assets from men to women is usually called the division of property, child support and alimony, and men have been unhappy about the matter for decades.

So it’s no surprise that, in the fairly rare case in which it’s the woman who earns more, she complains as well. After all, what’s sauce for the gander may be sauce for the goose, but when it’s rancid, it’s hard to swallow, regardless of who’s dining. Gender equality before the law is a fine idea, but when the law is a bad one, equality doesn’t make it better.

But what equality may do is produce reform. As I said, much of the law regarding the division of marital assets on divorce has benefitted women. That’s in part because men are still considered to be, first and foremost, resource providers to women and children. But when women start playing that role toward men, it sounds a discordant note. Asset division, alimony, etc. weren’t supposed to turn out that way! Traditional sex roles often conflict with gender equality under the law, and when they don’t, they can be jarring.

In the case of marital assets, child support and alimony, that can be a very good thing. It may take a woman like Pearson having her ox gored, just like countless men, to make people aware that divorce laws belong to a past that looks little like our present.

As Pearson laments, why should a man who basically lived off her for eight years walk away from their marriage with such a hefty chunk of her assets? Isn’t he an adult? Shouldn’t we ask adults to live with their own choices, to reap the benefits of their own successes and suffer for their own failures, bad choices, etc.? Why should we charge an ex-spouse with making up for another’s shortcomings or simple bad luck?

After all, Pearson did that during her marriage to Horrey. He didn’t contribute much to the family’s accounts, but still lived very well on her earnings. Pearson says she was happy with that arrangement and we can assume Horrey was as well. Each tacitly agreed with the other that she was the better earner and he would in part live off of her largess. That’s fine. Adults can make such an agreement and live with it. Pearson and Horrey did just that.

But when Horrey decides to end it all, why should Pearson continue to support him? Why should the assets she earned go to him, who didn’t? Never during their marriage did Horrey pay for himself, i.e. contribute enough to pay for the increased cost of his living in her house. And yet he received multiple financial benefits while they were together. He lived rent-free. Where else could he have done that? She paid for food, insurance, utilities, etc., all things he’d have had to pay for himself had he not been married to her. So why does she owe him a penny? The marriage is over.

It should be easy enough to calculate. We ought to be able to figure what each person contributed to the family. If each person worked during the marriage, we know what they earned. If one spouse cared for the kids, we can calculate what the fair market value of that labor is. If one person maintained the cars and the house, the value of that sort of labor is known. If another did the cooking and the laundry, the same is true. Etc., etc. In that way we can come to a reasonable percentages of who contributed what, both monetarily and “in kind.” Those percentages should decide the division of assets accrued during the marriage.

But time and again, divorce laws presume one spouse to be a helpless victim of circumstances, incapable of making adult decisions and abiding by their consequences. Jane Pearson knows that all too well.

It is not too much to ask that to change. If we demand adult behavior from adults, I suspect we’ll get it more often than we do now.

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