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Are Stay-At-Home Parents At Financial Risk During Divorce?

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STAY AT HOME DADS

Last year there were approximately five million stay-at-home moms in the United States. (The number decreased slightly from 2008, statistically insignificant according to the Census Bureau because of the recession.) In 2007, the Pew Research Center reported a significant uptick in the number of moms who preferred staying home to raise children.

Ohio State University sociology professor Liana Sayer says that society still generally feels it's unacceptable for men to be stay-at-home dads. Nevertheless, their numbers are on the rise, too. The Census Bureau estimates the number of stay-at-home fathers at 159,000, which tripled over a decade. Some say that's a gross underestimation, however, because it fails to account for nearly 2 million more fathers now primary caregivers due to the recession as well as fathers who work part-time to care for their children.

Whatever the exact numbers, stay-at-home parents are vulnerable to substantial financial risk during divorce. Time Magazine recently reported that unemployed men faced a greater danger of being left by their wives, particularly working wives. And though a wife's employment status had no bearing on risk, neither does the law provide stay-at-home moms sufficient protections either, especially under our unilateral divorce laws.

In practical terms, if the breadwinner leaves, the first risk faced is lack of immediate access to funds. Even if you have a joint bank account, your spouse might decide to open a new one in which to deposit paychecks. Joint stock or savings accounts may require joint approval for withdrawals. This could leave stay-at-home parents hostage for money until they are able to secure a temporary order of support as well as funds with which to defend themselves. For that, they'll undoubtedly need to hire an attorney and pay a retainer, unless the lawyer is willing to wait.

New York recently recognized the inherent unfairness of this financial disparity when it came to the ability to defend oneself in a lawsuit for divorce. It amended its domestic relations laws to establish a rebuttable presumption that the monied spouse be required to pay for the non-monied spouse's attorney and experts during the pendency of litigation. Regrettably I had no such statutory protection during my own divorce. In other states, stay-at-home spouses without independent means are generally subject to the proper exercise of discretion by the judicial system to award them sufficient funds both to defend themselves and for support.

The financial risk stay-at-home parents face when it comes to alimony is even more troubling. When no-fault was instituted, permanent alimony awarded to spouses who had given up their careers to become stay-at-home parents began to fall out of favor, permanent alimony being deemed incompatible with the clean break idea behind no-fault. Today, many states cap alimony awards. Unless you're the victim of spousal abuse or have been married ten years or longer, or have physical or mental disabilities, in Texas you're out of luck. Even then alimony is limited in amount and cannot exceed three years. The Massachusetts House of Representatives just approved a bill that will end lifetime alimony altogether. These are just a few of the many examples of the trend toward rehabilitative alimony designed to give stay-at-home spouses just enough time to find jobs and get back on their financial feet.

But what if alimony ends, or you receive none at all, and you've been out-of-work for years, home, taking care of your children? Today's economic climate makes employment hard to come by, let alone a job allowing parents to maintain their pre-divorce standard of living. What, too, if because of custody arrangements, you're forbidden to relocate where the cost-of-living would be considerably less and potential jobs more plentiful? What if you've past the mid-point of mid-life and competing for jobs with freshly graduated college, graduate and law school students who can't find employment themselves?

When his son became unable to attend day care because of health issues, Charlie (a pseudonym he asked me to use because custody issues are still pending) and his wife agreed that he would give up his full-time job to become a stay-at-home parent. Several years later, Charlie's wife left without explanation, filed for divorce, and took her high-paying job with her. Though he has been a stay-at-home dad for six years, Charlie told me he never received a penny of alimony and only one year of limited child support. He recently had a job opportunity in another state, but turned it down. It's more important to him to watch his son grow up.

Divorce financial strategist Jeff Landers says alimony reform has gone too far. "[I]t seems that stay-at-home moms . . . with little or no income of their own have lost their voice in state legislatures largely controlled by men." I believe the lack of sufficient protections applies equally to stay-at-home fathers.

Unlike millions of other Americans who find themselves suddenly out-of-work and without funds, unemployment benefits don't provide a safety net for stay-at-home divorced parents either.

Ditto for health insurance. For 19 years I was covered under my ex-husband's health and dental plans. During that period, I had four operations, not counting the birth of my two children. Divorce booted me off, just like millions of other spouses who are no longer considered "family" once the divorce gavel sounds. My current $971-a-month COBRA plan, funded out of dwindling savings, runs out in a little over six months.

When Charlie's divorce became final, he was excited to learn about that part of President Obama's stimulus package that provided for a reduction in COBRA insurance premiums of 65% for those who had lost their jobs. Like me, though, Charlie's excitement was short-lived. The plan excluded divorced stay-at-home parents who lost their "jobs" and their marriages.

The list goes on. The lack of pensions for stay-at-home parents. The social security benefits breadwinners build up, but stay-at-home parents don't. The absence of disability insurance to protect divorced stay-at-home parents.

Like Landers, I believe the push for alimony reform has gone too far. That our divorce laws also fail to take into account current economic and unemployment realities as well as the need to protect stay-at-home parents. And shouldn't unemployment benefits kick in, too, when alimony ends for stay-at-home parents who are unable to secure employment?