My boyfriend and I haven't even been dating a year and we're already fighting about a divorce settlement. Not our divorce settlement, but everyone else's. He seems to think that Kobe Bryant's wife is not entitled to the $75 million dollars she is likely to get. And I am outraged.
In California, without a prenup, husband and wife must split equally everything that was earned during the marriage. The moment a husband earns a dollar, the wife is immediately the owner of fifty cents of that dollar. Any wealth that either party has before the marriage, they both get to keep. But because Kobe and before him Mel Gibson earned their respective $150 and $850 million while married, their wives will leave the marriage with half of the money.
I happen to think this is fair. The problem is, my seemingly perfect Mr. Dreamboat, does not. It first came up this past summer, when I was studying to take the CA bar and read about Ron Burkle's divorce. Burkle, the supermarket mogul, was worth about $2 billion, however he (in my opinion) swindled his wife out of the billion she was due and she received only $40 million. Of course, $40 million is an enormous sum, but it's the principle; she should have gotten half. My boyfriend expressed some indignation that any stay-at-home wife who had raised children deserved $1 billion dollars.
So how much is it worth, then? I snapped back.
I don't know, but not $1 billion dollars.
Mr. Dreamboat seems to think that there is a cap on how much a stay at home mom is worth. (Although I use husband as the generic breadwinner because it's still more common, I believe the same rules apply when the wife is the income-earner -- a stay-at-home dad is also entitled to half.) People think that Gibson and Kobe are being defrauded out of their fortunes by greedy wives. These stories have headlines like, "Divorce will cost Kelsey Grammer $50 million" and just last week, the cover of People magazine said "Mel loses $425 mil in divorce." But you never see headlines that say, "Gibson's wife of thirty years who raised seven kids, virtually alone, while enduring life with an alcoholic gets what she deserves."
The problem is, no one actually deserves that much money. Does Mel Gibson deserve $425 million dollars because we have a warped celebrity culture that paid him $20 million dollars a movie to carry around a sword on a horse and wear make-up? Does Ron Burkle really deserve $2 billion dollars? No, because no one does. But he happens to have earned it through a combination of luck, circumstance, and hard work. And because of those same things, and California property laws that believe marriage is a partnership, their wives should get half.
My feeling about marriage is that once you enter into it, you are no longer doing anything alone. The sum is greater than the two parts and so it's not a husband who earns money and then shares it with his wife. Rather, the marriage is earning the money all along. Once married, the breadwinner is not earning that money by himself. He is enabled by the other spouse. Maybe Burkle's wife made it possible for him to earn all that money by supporting him during school or helping him make business decisions or keeping him afloat when he decided to take big financial risks. This seems especially true in the case of a stay-at-home parent, who keeps a home, picks up dry-cleaning, lays out socks to match a suit, and takes the kids to soccer.
Plus, suppose you can determine a monetary value for parenting. Say that the monetary value of a stay-at-home mom's hard work equals 25% of her husband's earnings. Reciprocally, should the husband be able to claim responsibility for only 25% of the people the children turn out to be? Is dad entitled to only 25% of the kids' affection because he only did 25% of the parenting?
When this first came up in my relationship, I didn't push the issue very far because we hadn't been dating very long. But ever since, I've been wondering if we fundamentally disagree about our philosophies regarding marriage. And if we do, wouldn't we flunk one of those compatibility quizzes so badly, the screen would start flashing red with BAD MATCH written across it? So when this topic came up again thanks to Kobe, now ten months into our relationship, I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the debate.
He again reiterated his dismay at the large divorce settlement so I dug further, explaining my aforementioned reasons for supporting Kobe's wife. And though I kept most of the sass at bay, I just couldn't resist a little indignation. I just could never marry someone who fundamentally disagreed with me about the philosophy of marriage, I said haughtily.
You make some good points, he said. But he wasn't done. He reminded me about a facet of divorce that I had forgotten about. This whole time, I'd been perplexed by his opinion because he's rather close with his mother, a stay-at-home mom, and I couldn't understand how he could undervalue her contribution. But I had forgotten about his father, who has been less lucky in marriage. My boyfriend has seen divorce from the other side. When there are short-term marriages and no children involved, do I still believe that everything must be shared equally? I could imagine a hypothetical where the marriage was short and the wife was not working at the marriage while the husband was working at the marriage and earning a large income and upon divorce, the husband felt like the wife was asking for more than her fair sure.
When I think about marriage, I form opinions based on my marriage. Of course, having never been married, I talk based only on how I want it to be. I imagine I will work tirelessly at being a long-term wife and mother, and should I sacrifice my career, I want my husband to feel that everything he earned, we earned together because I would be working just as hard as him. It had never occurred to me that divorce might come after a short marriage or without children because well, I can't imagine a marriage like that. My parents have been married 35 years, all of my parents' friends are still married... suffice to say, I didn't grow up with a lot of divorce. I started to realize he had a point. But does he really think that any marriage involving me might involve someone not pulling her weight?
I think you might convince me of this though, he added after explaining his reasoning. Don't give up on this one, he smiled knowingly at me. Maybe it's not a philosophy regarding marriage that I have to convince him of. Maybe it's me I have to convince him of. After all, I don't want to marry someone who believes we have the same opinion on divorce settlements. I want to marry someone who believes that there's not going to be any divorce at all.
Follow Tamara Shayne Kagel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@TamaraSKagel