When it comes to alimony, the law is blind to gender. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, that’s how family law works,” said Laura Wasser, the California lawyer representing the singer Kelly Clarkson in her high-profile divorce.
Even though the Supreme Court ruled that alimony is gender neutral in 1979, Ms. Wasser said that women have still been surprised to find themselves doling out spousal support. “What amazes me is that many bright and sophisticated women don’t realize they will have to pay,” said Ms. Wasser, declining to comment directly on Ms. Clarkson’s case.
Ms. Clarkson and Brandon Blackstock, an entertainment agent, split in 2020 after seven years of marriage. Despite a prenuptial agreement recently upheld in a Los Angeles court, Mr. Blackstock has been awarded temporary monthly spousal support of nearly $150,000, half of his initial ask. (Though he stated that he planned to exit the entertainment industry to become a full-time rancher on a Montana property owned by Ms. Clarkson, the ranch was awarded to her as per the couple’s prenuptial agreement.)
In addition to the monthly spousal support paid by Ms. Clarkson, Mr. Blackstock also receives child support of around $45,000 per month, despite Ms. Clarkson having been awarded primary physical custody of their two children.
This might seem like a lot, but according to documents filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Ms. Clarkson’s monthly income is $1.9 million. She follows in the wake of other female stars whose settlements were way steeper: Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosanne Barr, Kirstie Alley and Janet Jackson have all paid hugely in their divorces.
Public response to the breakup has not been favorable to Mr. Blackstock who, on Twitter, has been called out as a “parasite,” and “an opportunist,” among other unprintable names. One sentiment echoed in many comments: “What kind of man sues his ex-wife for spousal support when he’s perfectly capable of maintaining his lifestyle on his own salary?”
Part of the shock over such settlements, according to Alexandra Killewald, a sociology professor at Harvard who studies the effects of unequal earning on relationships, may be influenced by preconceived notions about gender. “Our culture expects men to be the primary breadwinners and there are simply more options for women for part-time work or to take time for child rearing,” Ms. Killewald said.
Another reason that men being awarded alimony can come as a surprise is because it doesn’t happen that often.
According to a 2019 study of census data by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research group, half of United States households are headed by women, on average. While national statistics on alimony aren’t tracked, Michael Mosberg, a New York-based lawyer and the former chairman of the American Bar Association’s family law section, said that despite an increase in stay-at-home husbands, far more women than men seek and receive spousal support.
“The law is written to be gender neutral and blind, but that it isn’t always the case,” said Mr. Mosberg, speaking on his own behalf. “More women are now working in prestigious positions, and more husbands are staying home with the kids, but men receiving support is still the exception rather than the rule.”
Judges often scrutinize men more harshly during their bid for support, reflecting the bias that assumes men are, or should be, breadwinners, said Brendan Hammer, a Chicago-based lawyer. “Judges may also ask for a job diary, to prove that the husband is trying to earn what he did formerly, or even a living wage,” he said.
Elizabeth Lindsey, the president of the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers, said in her experience, judges often awarded men less support for shorter durations while expecting them to return to the job market faster than women.
“There is a growing trend away from long-term alimony,” she said, noting that in Georgia, where she currently practices law, courts may still award lifetime support. “Over all, spousal support is meant to rehabilitate and retool the under-earning or out-of-work spouse,” Ms. Lindsey added.
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Men who have landed in a dependent position say they’ve found themselves there for various reasons.
When Glenn Smith married in 2014, he became a stepparent to two teenage boys. His wife, a tax lawyer, was the high earner of the couple and he soon gave up his career selling insurance to take care of the boys, he said. The relationship fell apart in 2020 and the divorce was finalized in early 2021. He receives $2,000 in monthly spousal support, something that will continue for two and a half years.
“For seven years I worked hard: I did the shopping, cooking, driving the kids and taking care of the house,” he said. “This small amount of monthly support provides me with wiggle room to relaunch my career.”
Dax Roggio, a video editor and designer, married his longtime girlfriend in 2014, separated in 2019, and finalized his divorce in 2020.
His wife, a lawyer, was positioned to be the high earner of the family, so when she became pregnant with the first of their two children, he was an obvious choice to be the stay-at-home parent. In their divorce, which was mediated, both agreed to 50-50 custody of their children, now 8 and 5, and that Mr. Roggio would receive child support and alimony.
It took some time for the couple to come to an agreement on the duration of the payments, but they settled on Mr. Roggio receiving alimony for three years, a span that “will give me a chance to grow my business while maintaining the flexibility to spend time with my kids,” he said. “I don’t feel shame about receiving alimony, I wouldn’t trade the time I had with my kids for anything, but that’s not to say it was easy.”
Mr. Hammer said that pride can be an issue for men when it comes to seeking alimony because they often view being supported by a former spouse as emasculating. To sidestep the embarrassment of being dependent, equity and assets may be leveled in other ways, including one-time upfront payouts. But such buyouts carry risks.
“You might pay more than what would have been paid over time,” said Kelly Frawley, a lawyer based in New York, who added that monthly spousal support ceases if the payee lives with or remarries a new partner.
Pamela Tracy is a lawyer at the America Divorce Association for Men, a Detroit law firm specializing in defending men’s rights. With her clients she is often on the asking side of support, but in her own divorce, settled in 2009, she was ordered to pay five years of alimony to her former spouse. Throughout her 15-year marriage she was the primary, and often sole, breadwinner.
Her husband cared for their four children, who ranged in age from 4 to 11 at the time of their divorce. But the division of labor was unclear: She said she still managed the bulk of the children’s social, medical and educational needs along with many of the household chores. While the court ordered her to pay five years of spousal support, after two years she took custody of the children full time. She then stopped paying both child and spousal support.
“As hard as it was to write those checks, it was fair, he needed money to get started with his own life,” Ms. Tracy said.
Recent changes in family law have further disrupted the balance of alimony payments. After President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 went into effect, alimony ceased being tax deductible for the paying spouse. Instead, the recipient now receives support as tax-free income.
Some think the entire support system is flawed. “No one wants to pay alimony, but women hate it times 10,” said Emma Johnson, the author of “The Kick-Ass Single Mom” whose blog, Wealthysinglemommy, addresses economic issues for divorced women. Ms. Johnson believes spousal support prolongs problems for everyone involved.
“It’s hard to move on when there’s a monthly reminder of your resentment,” she said. “Equal rights mean equal responsibilities, why is anybody in this day and age paying anyone else’s rent?”