Keli Goff writes in The Daily Beast about alimony in modern life.
At least one observer wonders whether $30 million-plus in payments helped kill Robin Williams. Is alimony hopelessly antiquated and un-feminist?
On Saturday, Henry Rollins finally responded to days of criticism and apologized for a column he wrote that appeared critical of Robin Williams’ suicide. Rollins became just the latest media figure to spark controversy for his thoughts on the Williams tragedy. Fox News anchor Shep Smith also apologized for using the word “coward” during his coverage of Williams, while Rush Limbaugh drew fire for managing to link the comedian’s death to (what else?) the political left.
But another media figure has weighed in with a controversial take on Williams’ suicide. She has blamed alimony. More specifically, she is using his death as a rallying cry for alimony reform and raising the question: Is alimony anti-feminist?
New York Daily News Columnist Linda Stasi’s opening line leaves little to the imagination. She asks point blank, “Did alimony kill Robin Williams?” She then goes on to write: “At least in part it sure did. Paying out over $30 million to ex-wives who were allowed to attach themselves to Williams’ bank account like comatose patients on feeding tubes would be enough to make Gandhi angry and depressed.”
As controversial as Stasi’s column may be, she is not alone in wondering whether Williams’ alimony and subsequent money woes ultimately played a role in his death.
In an interview, Steve Hitner, founder of Massachusetts Alimony Reform, raised the subject of Williams’ suicide as he spoke of the countless people, particularly men, who have had their lives ruined by unfair alimony laws. After alimony payments to his former wife ruined him financially, Hitner spent years advocating reform of Massachusetts’ alimony laws: “The way the law was at the time the receiving spouse need[ed] to be maintained in the lifestyle of the marriage.”
Hitner hit a rough patch financially and could no longer afford the payments, but he could not get the payments to his ex-wife modified. “So I felt the only way I could win was to change the law,” he says. “It took me eight years to do it. I started Massachusetts Alimony Reform.”
Massachusetts had among the most draconian alimony statutes in the country, which often resulted in lifetime alimony payments to the lesser-earning spouse, regardless of duration of the marriage or ability of the higher-earning spouse to pay. Ironically, according to Hitner, women were some of his staunchest allies in getting the Massachusetts law reformed.
These women were often second wives, who did not take kindly to the idea that a substantial portion of their new husband’s salary would be going to his former wife, particularly in instances in which the first wife had a new live-in partner, something the former law did not take into account. Today, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Florida all have lifetime alimony statutes. New Jersey’s Assembly, however, recently passed a reform law. It has not yet been signed into law by Governor Chris Christie.
In an age in which women serve in the cabinet and are now obtaining college degrees at higher rates than men, the idea that women should be awarded a post-divorce allowance from a spouse strikes many as outdated.
The concept of alimony, also referred to as “maintenance” in some countries, dates back thousands of years and was first referenced in texts in ancient Babylon. Though gender roles and traditional marriage definitions have evolved greatly since then, the traditional meaning of alimony has remained largely the same. A marriage ends and one party pays the less financially solvent party some sort of means of support. In ancient times when it was not feasible for women to obtain meaningful work or to remarry easily due to cultural norms, alimony served as an important form of security.
But today, in an age in which women serve in the cabinet and are now obtaining college degrees at higher rates than men, the idea that women (who receive alimony at much higher rates than men) should be awarded a post-divorce allowance from a spouse strikes many as outdated and an embarrassment to feminist principles.
In her column Stasi wrote…”the truth is alimony (which is different from child support and fair distribution of assets acquired during the marriage) doesn’t mean the non-working spouse is entitled to live as high as the Kardashians. It’s that concept that is fundamentally anti-feminist.”
Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law Center disagreed. She stressed the rarity of lifetime alimony and said that she believes that in a number of instances alimony remains a necessity. “The reality is that both within a marriage and the workplace women have still not achieved equality,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s still more likely that in a marriage [it’s] the woman who makes some career sacrifices to raise children and provide a home. It is also the case that her work opportunities are diminished particularly if she’s had children, and the statistics bear this out.”
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