No Money - Passport to the Poorhouse for Women in Divorce
Key Points
  • Women may still be at an economic disadvantage when it comes to divorce.
  • Maintaining a household with significantly less money is a one-way ticket to living in poverty.
  • In divorce, a woman’s standard of living often decreases while a man’s standard of living increases.
  • Division of assets in a divorce may not mean 50/50 dollar amount; being awarded the family home may send you to the poorhouse quickly.

Most divorce survivors remember the experience the way veterans remember surviving a war. The liberalization of divorce has not made divorce painless or even easy, but liberalized divorce probably gave more women far more latitude about escaping a bad marriage. At the same time, women have more to think - and worry - about when doing it.

First of all money. Two can live as cheaply as one when they are living together as a married couple in the same household, but when a husband and wife go separate ways the arithmetic can change dramatically - and women generally come off the worse, particularly when they are the custodial parents.

Not only do divorced woman face the prospect of maintaining a household, they also face the prospect of maintaining that household with significantly less income.

Eighty percent of the custodial parents in America are women, and custodial mothers are twice as likely as custodial fathers to live below the poverty line.

Much has been made of the so-called "feminization of poverty," that is, the number of women living in poverty. Some conservative commentators blame rising rates of out-of-wedlock births to unmarried woman and divorce, claiming that unmarried motherhood and broken marriages are more common among the working classes. "It’s not so much that ‘the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,’ as it’s ‘those going to college and staying married are doing increasing well over time, and single-parents without a high school degree are not doing so well over time,’" writes Mark J. Perry, a visitor at The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Some sources strongly suggest that for many women, particularly custodial mothers, divorce is a passport to the poorhouse. Although the numbers differ, many studies, not only in the United States but also in Europe and Australia, suggest that after divorce, a woman’s standard of living drops but that a man’s increases. One often quoted study put the woman’s loss at 27 percent and the man’s gain at 10 percent.

In her article "How to Help Older Women Avoid the Bag Lady Blues," Carol Ann Wilson, a divorce financial planner, said many middle aged woman go into divorce fearing destitution and a life on the street as a bag lady. Ms. Wilson maintains that in the first year after a divorce the former wife’s standard of living drops 25 percent while the husband’s increases, and that the higher the income of the family while married, the wider the gap is in divorce.

The emancipation of women opened doors to many qualified women in fields closed to them only a generation ago, and changed the marriages patterns in the middle, upper-middle of strata of society. At one time, women tended to marry up; men married down. The lawyer married his secretary; the doctor married a nurse. Now the lawyer tends to marry another lawyer; the doctor another doctor. This change may explain the widening gap in incomes between the top and the bottom. Even with this, the pattern still holds: the husband’s career comes first.

In the United States, 41 of the 50 jurisdictions are equitable distribution states, which means the court divides the marital estate fairly. This does not necessarily mean 50-50. Courts very often approve settlements where the dollar amount may be slightly in favor of the woman; for example, a woman with small children may be awarded the marital home (with the husband receiving other assets). Yet a house is a barren asset that pays nothing until it is sold, and in today’s market declining market values make sales problematic. Moreover, maintenance and taxes require care in accepting the house as a share of the marital estate.

Even with equitable distribution of the marital estate, woman may fare more poorly because courts undervalue the lifetime value of the largest asset a man has - his career. For example, the lifetime value of a professional man - a lawyer - includes his increasing seniority and networking and increasing earning power, yet courts tend to view these advantages as what is termed goodwill without a present value. Even when his wife has advanced his career by taking off a decade or two for childrearing, a wife finds herself at a disadvantage when the value of her contributions is determined. As Ms. Wilson notes, "the court divides property only once, but career assets continue to produce income for years."

Even with equitable distribution, the dynamics of marriage can work against a woman when the marriage ends in divorce. In a majority of cases, even among professional couples, the spouses invest heavily in the husband’s career and the wife’s career comes second. Moreover, in traditional marriages, the husband works, and the wife dedicates herself to the rearing of their children.

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