UF professor: alimony still plays a role in many failed marriages
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Alimony has almost disappeared from cocktail conversations and college textbooks, but the subject remains a sticky issue in some failed marriages, says a University of Florida researcher.
“It’s kind of a shadowy area,” said Felix Berardo, a UF sociology professor whose study takes a new look at the subject. “You don’t run into somebody at a party who says, ‘Well, I’m doing pretty good on alimony.’ It may be the kind of thing people don’t really want known.”
Reliable information is difficult to obtain, but historically the frequency of court-awarded alimony appears to have ranged during the past 60 years from a low of 6 percent of dissolved marriages to a high of roughly 20 percent, with amounts actually received probably considerably lower, Berardo said. The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show about 9 percent of divorced people receive alimony.
Alimony’s relative decline is tied to larger social forces, most notably women’s increasing independence, he said.
“More than any other aspect, alimony shows the transformation in the position of women under the new divorce laws,” Berardo said.
Even if its use has declined, alimony can continue to cloud relationships after the marriage is formally dissolved. “It has very profound implications for the emotional and economic well-being of the former spouse, not to mention the children,” he said.
The payments can keep the initial hostility alive in divorced couples, especially if the man wants to remarry but doesn’t think he can afford to.
“Certainly from a woman’s point of view, if she falls in love with a man and discovers he is paying alimony and child support, she might have second thoughts about the whole thing,” he said.
The practice may even affect cohabitation rates, since laws allow alimony to be taken away in cases of remarriage.
“Do people say, ‘If we get married I lose my alimony, so let’s live together?’” he said.
When are children are involved, dissatisfaction over alimony may result in divorced couples using the youngsters as a means of bargaining or punishment in their disputes, he said.
Unlike child support, which gets lots of attention in college sociology textbooks, material on alimony is limited to a paragraph or two on the legal dimensions, he said.
“One could argue that research and policy on the ‘deadbeat dad’ problem is widespread, while such efforts on behalf of the ‘skinflint spouse’ are nonexistent,” he said.
In the past, alimony was more likely to be awarded to women who stayed home and raised children as compensation for remaining out of the job market, Berardo said. Many of today’s judges are reluctant to give alimony if a woman has a job that pays well enough to support a family, he said.
“That’s one of the dilemmas of the women’s liberation movement,” he said. “On the one hand feminists want to protect women, but they don’t know if they should be kept on the dole dependent upon a male.”
Steven Turnage, a Gainesville lawyer, estimates about one-quarter of the divorce cases he handles involve alimony, but it’s usually rehabilitative alimony, which is designed to help a spouse in learning job skills or getting a degree, he said.
“There is less of a tendency for the court to award permanent alimony,” he said, “probably because more women are out in the work force instead of staying home and taking care of children full time.”