“I am not trying to punish him/her; I don’t want alimony.”

“I’ve always been a feminist; I don’t want alimony.”

“I feel guilty I don’t support myself; I don’t want alimony.”

During many consultations, people object to the very idea of spousal support for those and many other reasons. Much of the objections come from misconceptions of the purpose and meaning of spousal support. Most of our familiarity with alimony comes from the jaw-dropping amounts of alimony paid by the rich and famous. Jeff Bezos is paying Mackenzie Bezos approximately $36 billion; Jaunita Jordan received about $168 million when her 16-year marriage from Michael ended; Paul McCartney paid nearly $50 million to Heather Mills; Madonna paid Guy Ritchie between $76 and $92 million; Britney Spears paid $40,000/month to Kevin Federline. These numbers are difficult for most people to understand and may seem so high that the entire system feels unfair. However, alimony serves a real and legitimate purpose.

Some people believe that alimony is outdated. Sure, back then, when families were single-earner households, it made sense. But now, both partners are fully capable of working, right? While this is sometimes true, one of the impacts of the partnership of marriage is that often both parties work but encourage one another to find careers that balance happiness and financial stability. A common result is that even in dual-income households, one spouse earns more than the other. For a family whose combined income afforded them the ability to live in a single-family home in a specific school district, the ability to go on vacations, and the ability to shop without couponing, the ability to set specific budgets for clothing, entertainment, and food, it may not matter which person earns which percent of the income. However, when people get divorced, the family budget is not just split in half. Instead, both people have become used to a specific standard of living, but now each person must pay for themselves.

This is even more pronounced in marriages where one person agreed to delay, forego, or otherwise alter their career in support of the other’s. Staying home to take care of the children is a prime example of such a negotiation, but there are others. For example, if one spouse has the ability to earn a very large income in a high-stress job, her spouse may agree to forego promotions to ensure that the children always have someone available to pick them up from school, the house is clean, and the refrigerator is full. One spouse may start working a low-paying job to support the other through school, foregoing their own educational advancement. As a result, one spouse is “stuck” in a lower paying field while the other is now making substantial income. Decisions like these are made as a couple by people who believe they will be together to support one another forever. But by the time people have called a marriage over, those decisions were long in the past.

It is also tempting to believe that men always pay alimony to women, but that just is not true. According to American Progress, in 2017, mothers were the primary breadwinners in more than 40% of families. In North Carolina, alimony is paid to a dependent spouse by a supporting spouse. That means that the recipient of alimony must have a need and the person who pays it must have the ability to pay. The Courts look at the budgets of both people and determine whether each person can meet their reasonable needs and expenses to live at the standard established during the marriage. This means that the trope of the conniving harpy hell-bent on wringing her ex for all his funds may exist, but typically would be operating outside the bounds of what the law intends. In fact, in the Orr v. Orr case, the Supreme Court determined that alimony must be awarded based on financial need and not gender. That was in 1979 when women earned only 62% of men. Six years later, Lenore J. Weitzman reported that men’s standard of living after divorce increased by 42% while women and children’s decreased by 73%. However, since then, some things have changed. 2021 figures put the wage gap at 82% now. More recent studies show that women now only see a 20% decline in their income post-divorce and men’s incomes tend to increase by only 30%. So, things are better. They just aren’t equal.

So, great. What does this mean and how does it impact objections to requesting alimony? The primary purpose of that information is to show that alimony itself is complicated, with a complicated history and complicated considerations. There have been many treatises and articles and studies written about economics, feminism, and alimony and no single resolution has yet to be established. The law as it exists provides that a person should only pay alimony if they can afford it and, even then, only to the extent necessary to provide a reasonable and necessary standard of living. If you have found yourself at the end of your marriage and you are wondering about spousal support, discuss this with an attorney. If you and your soon-to-be-ex had a marriage in which he/she was the primary earner, consider how that will impact you long term. Sure, perhaps you can get a job. Maybe you can accept promotions. Maybe you can go back to school. But you’re starting with a handicap. A handicap that impacts your ability to save for retirement; a handicap that affects your ability to provide for yourself; a handicap that impacts your ability to live your life with happiness. It may be that you consider all the factors and still decide that you want to forgo alimony. What is most important is that you are able to make the decision that is best for you and your future with the help of your family law attorney.