Talking to a guy about asking for alimony from his wife is one of the toughest parts of my, and I dare say all family attorneys', job. Tough not because the concept is difficult to explain, but tough because most guys just refuse to do it. Isn't that a woman's thing, after all? In theory, no. In practice, sometimes it is. But should that stop you from making sure you get your fair share?
In no State is gender one of the written factors to consider when awarding alimony. In some States, the legislature or the courts have fashioned a framework based on years of marriage, household income and separate incomes to determine who receives alimony, if anyone, and for how long. In most States, though, there is no framework, and, instead, the judge is left to a much more fact-intensive analysis- and one more susceptible to disguising a gender preference.
In Michigan, where I practice, arguing for alimony is like putting numbers into a black box and waiting guessingly for what will come out. The judge has the discretion to award alimony, but the award "must be based on what is just and reasonable under the circumstances of the case." What that usually comes down to is anyone's guess, because "fair" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. True, the award, if any, must balance the income and needs of the soon-to-be exes without impoverishing either and considering the parties' respective income, ability to work, health, fault, need, and age. But the "right" balance is purely discretionary
The problem is, judges have so much discretion that virtually any award is acceptable on appeal. A discretionary ruling receives the greatest amount of deference on appeal. Moreover, although the judge must state findings of fact on each support factor, there are so many factors that it is easy to mask what is really punishment for being "lazy" or suspicion for "milking it" in the name of age, employability and potential to earn money. So long as the judges rationalizes the decision with the other factors (age, health, lifestyle, employability, marriage length, etc.), the award will survive appeal even if gender was one of the (unstated) considerations, or even the guiding one.
So, how many guys actually receive alimony? According to the US Census Bureau, in 2000 men made up only 4% of the divorcees receiving alimony. By 2009, the figure had quadrupled to 8%, but the study did not include men who could have obtained alimony and just refused to request it. The "quadrupled" figure might sound impressive, but, over the same timespan, men bore almost 75% of the job loss in the nation, women's earning capacities increased to 80% of their working male counterparts, and women still received 92% of all alimony awards. See "The Controversial Rise in Manimony" by Hillary Stout.
Why the disparity? There are many reasons. I can tell you, from my practice, that a lot of guys just refuse to ask for it. Asking for alimony is perceived as a sign of weakness, further emasculating them in a relationship that was already lopsided and broken. To them I say, money is only part of a couples' marital wealth - that you did not bring home the bigger paycheck during the marriage does not make you less worthy of money coming out of it; your unpaid work for the yard, home repairs, vehicles, grocery shopping, running errands, fixing everything on your wife's "To Do List" for years, etc., is valuable and deserves compensation.
Even when they do ask for it, it's a tougher job persuading the judge that they need it, as opposed to just want it for revenge. Judges are humans, and humans come with a host of preconceptions and assumptions about what men and women should and should not do - who should stay at home with the kids, who should work, who is capable of reviving economically from a divorce faster, etc. I am not saying judges do not apply the law, because most do, but that it takes more persuading when the man is the one asking for what is traditionally for women.
And if the guy is unsatisfied with the ruling, then what? There is usually an option to appeal, but the time and expense of an appeal for a guy who does not have enough money in the first place is a huge deterrent. Add to this the growing, gnawing feeling of just wanting to "get it over with" as the divorce drags on, and the guy is likely to toss in the towel and say forget it. He'd rather live in an apartment and eat noodles and Cheerios to survive than keep fighting with his new ex-wife.
Which brings me back to my original point: in theory, guys should get alimony; in practice, they usually do not. They do not, that is, unless they have someone bold enough and principled enough to advocate for them the right way. That means telling your opponent-your wife and her attorney - at the outset that this is an alimony case, we want alimony and we will pursue it. We will investigate her income. We want to know her budget. We are not afraid to try the case, and appeal it if we have to, and, if she doesn't like that, she needs to come to the table and settle. It also means doing at least the following:
Prepare Your Budget - Where will you be living after your divorce? What will rent run? A mortgage? What will you spend for utilities, phone service, internet, transportation, insurance, medical care, legal expenses, your children? Can you meet these expenses on your own? Keep the budget realistic, because no one believes you will spend $500 monthly on clothing (if you do, you probably do not need alimony).
Value Your Services - What does it cost to hire someone for lawn care? Snow removal? Home improvements? The oil changes you've been doing throughout your marriage? Value these services to show how your unpaid contributions to your marital standard of living have contributed something of real value that deserves compensation.
Get Comparisons - Talk to divorced co-workers, family and friends, someone you know receiving alimony, and find out what worked in their cases. How are the cases similar to yours? Different? Who was the judge? And what arguments did they make to advance their cause?
Most of all, talk to your attorney. You want to know what the strategy is. What hearing dates you have and what you need to do to prepare for them, what the "hi" and "low" for negotiating will be, and whether (and how) you will participate. You want to know what law is on your side. Because if the law is on your side, and if you are not afraid to advocate for it, you've won more than half the battle.
In short, it takes stepping up to the plate like a man to get alimony.