Saturday, February 7, 2015

Legal institutions are sticky things, often stupidly so

I cannot for the life of me understand why courts still award alimony.

Not child support - that still mostly makes sense in principle, though in practice it has its own problems , like the fact that it can be spent on any number of things other than care for the children. There also particularly revolting versions like California's paternity arrangements whereby a man who is duped into believing that someone else's child is his own has only two years from the birth of the child to challenge paternity, otherwise he's stuck paying child support forever, genetic testing be damned. And even if he files in time, the court may still decide it's not in the child's interests - the man's interests, having been the subject of a vicious con that is the male equivalent of rape, are of less importance.

Where was I? Oh yes, the basic principles of child support are reasonable.

But what in the name of all that is holy is the justification for alimony in this day and age? When you marry someone, apparently you are entitled to a certain standard of living from that person in perpetuity. Phrased this way, it is bonkers.

For the feminists on this blog, here's a story a friend of mine told me today. His brother in law was married to a woman, and they had a child. The woman was a lawyer, but decided she wanted to stop working. She wasn't actually involved any more than the man in raising the child - they had nannies to take care of the child. Instead, the woman just lived a life of leisure, and never returned back to work. At some point she got bored, began an affair, and divorced the man. She claimed alimony, which she was awarded, based on the lifestyle she had before. She could still go back to her legal career now, obviously, but why would she? The man will be stuck paying alimony unless the woman decides to remarry. Of course, since there's now enormous financial disincentives against her remarrying, the smart money predicts she'll just move in with her new boyfriend and never remarry, so as to keep the cash flowing.

How on earth did we end up with such a bizarre arrangement? It seems obvious that nobody in their right mind would design this monstrosity today. But it's a holdover from the years long past when
a) women couldn't work outside the home, so couldn't support themselves short of remarrying,
b) divorces were only granted by fault, so if the man wanted to just pack up and leave, he would be slugged with alimony, but if the women was having an affair and the man sought a divorce, bad luck for the woman.
c) the social pressure on people to remarry the subject of their affair after the divorce was large, hence 'alimony until remarriage' was a reasonable estimate of the length of financial hardship.

It's pretty clear that none of this holds any more. There is a very limited grounds for alimony when a woman has given up several years of a career to raise the family's children. But once the children are at school age, it's hard to know why courts should subsidise permanent leisure. And between nannies and daycare, there are plenty of ways for both parents to go back to work within a length of time that won't be massively disruptive to a career, certainly for the one point something children that the average couple has.

There are good policy reasons to make sure that a non-working partner doesn't get totally left in the lurch, particularly when children are involved. But remember, even without alimony most of the time the non-working partner is going to get a significant fraction of the assets, so they're not going to be totally broke. And if there are still reasons to grant payments under a limited form of alimony, it seems that they should be something like unemployment benefits - payments for a limited number of time while the person finds a new occupation. Why one should get alimony indefinitely without working is beyond me. And if there are no children involved, it is absolutely inconceivable what the justification for alimony is. Get a damn job!

None of this will happen, of course. Feminists like alimony because they live in a Stalinist 'who, whom' universe, where extracting resources from beta male schlubs is an end in itself.

The only chance whatsoever for alimony reform is that as women's incomes start rising, the number of cases where lazy men are claiming alimony from their working ex-wives is on the rise. That might finally strike feminists as being unfair and deserving of reform, but just about nothing else will.

Speaking of which, in that story I told you, I did alter one minor detail. The main protagonist was actually my friend's sister-in-law. The lazy parent who stopped working, began an affair and successfully claimed alimony? That was the husband.

And you know what? The absurdity and injustice is exactly the same.

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