The New York Times Is Wrong: Alimony Does Not Work as It Should

The NY Times is wrong: alimony doesn't usually work well.

Posted Mar 05, 2012

A story by Lizette Alvarez in today's New York Times reports that alimony payers (usually men) around the country are pushing for greater fairness in alimony decisions in an era when more women are working. Much of the thinking about alimony, and guidelines, where they exist, come from a world in which women usually did not work.

A change in such thinking is welcome, and I'm glad to see that it's gaining some momentum in state legislatures. But Alvarez makes a mistake that I see in these kinds of stories all the time.

In most states, Alvarez writes, "the alimony system mostly works as it should." She doesn't attribute that to anyone; she makes that assertion on her own, in her own voice.

And her evidence? Here's the first of two points: "Ninety-five percent of those who divorce settle out of court." The implication is that settlements are fair. Two parties came together, resolved their differences, and came to mutual agreement. It sounds lovely, but it's wrong. Here are my assertions, unproven and unscientific, but based on talking to many divorced people. 

Settlements occur because divorcing couples cannot afford the costs of going to trial, which can costs tens of thousands of dollars, if not more—sometimes much more. Many of the 95 percent of people who settle do so because they cannot afford not to. The high settlement rate reflects the exorbitant cost of legal representations, not a sense of fairness and mutual agreement. And to Alvarez's second point: "Judges often make fair decisions, legal experts say." What legal experts? And based on what research? I'd like to see the studies on this, and I'd be especially interested in how the studies, if there are any, defined "fairness." And the views of the parties might be more important than the views of legal experts. A post I did three years ago on child support generated heavy comment, almost all from people—both those who pay it and those who receive it—who thought the system was unfair. I don't know many people—if any—who think their divorce settlement was fair. Alvarez should rethink her assertions, or back them up with some real information.