In U.S., all is fair in love and divorce . . . or is it?

STAYING AHEAD

February 07, 1993|By JANE BRYANT QUINN

New York -- America is moving toward a sex-neutral culture of divorce, and a lot of working women don't like it. Take Joan Lunden, the co-host of "Good Morning America," who was recently ordered by a New York court to pay her estranged husband, Michael Krauss, $18,000 a month in "temporary maintenance."

She also contributes to his medical bills and covers all the fixed costs on the family home, where he, but not she, continues to live.

Lunden reportedly makes $2 million annually; Krauss, says his lawyer, Norman Sheresky, is not earning a paycheck. She shot off a verbal Scud -- repeating, in reverse, what many a divorcing man has said of his ex-wife. "Why the courts don't tell a husband who has been living off his wife to get a job is beyond my comprehension," Lunden complained.

So what about it? In divorce, should women be treated just like men in similar circumstances?

Myrna Felder, a New York appellate lawyer, answers that question with a definite yes. In fact, payments by wives are actually a "hopeful trend," she says, "because it means that women are doing better financially."

But to Erica Jong, a thrice-divorced novelist, the Lunden case mocks equality. "Women who earn big sums tend to be in entertainment and the arts, where your paycheck often depends on your youth and looks," she says. "We lose our earning power earlier than men, so we shouldn't be required to pay the same."

Shelby White, author of the new book "What Every Woman Should Know About Her Husband's Money," says he thinks that alimony should be used mainly to compensate spouses who stay home and don't develop earning power -- a standard that few men can meet.

So what's really just? Today's divorce laws try to impose evenhanded rules on the battle of the exes. But as a new generation of feminists sees it, "equality" means that women lose. Here's how matters stand at the Great Divide:

* Fathers are pursuing more child-custody cases because they're racking up more victories, says Marshall Wolf, a matrimonial lawyer in Cleveland. Most children still go with their mothers, by family choice. But when men fight, studies show them prevailing between 45 percent and 70 percent of the time.

Courts usually settle custody based on the "best interest of the child," a chancy rule that relies on the judgments of social workers or psychologists. For more objectivity, West Virginia now gives preference to the "primary caretaker," usually (but not always) the mother. There's a sex-neutral standard: joint physical custody. But experience has shown that hostile couples cannot make it work.

* The number of women tapped for child support is rising rapidly. Even so, they pay less on average than fathers do -- including mothers who earn equal incomes, according to Kathryn Rettig of the University of Minnesota. This isn't as discriminatory as it sounds. Mothers are more likely than fathers to lose the use of the family home and less likely than fathers to get an equal share of the property.

In Rettig's study, fathers without custody of children took 47 percent of the assets, vs. 28 percent for mothers. If noncustodial mothers get less property, it's fair that they pay less child support.

* Women who earn paychecks may be thought, by some judges, to be less devoted to their children -- a burden that working fathers don't bear. But men face courtroom bias, too -- most commonly a belief that they lack the emotional resources to nurture small children.

* In community-property states, the assets of the marriage are normally divided in half. Elsewhere, the shares may turn on each spouse's contribution to the marriage, professionally or in the home. As usual, property follows earnings. The more women make, the more they get when they divorce.

* Women with lower earnings than men suffer more, economically, in divorce.

(Jane Bryant Quinn is a syndicated columnist. Write her at: Newsweek, 444 Madison Ave., 18th Floor, New York, N.Y., 10022.)

1993, Washington Post Writers Group

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