What are the Rights of an Unemployed Wife in a Divorce?
By Beverly Bird
Stay-at-home moms and unemployed wives are among the most vulnerable of spouses in a divorce. Individual state laws vary a great deal, but the decision of whether to award financial support to a wife usually rests in the hands of a particular judge. If he’s sympathetic to your plight, he’ll use the discretion granted to him by law to order your spouse to provide you with a steady income post-divorce. Otherwise, you might find yourself unable to make ends meet.
Judges rarely force a woman to find gainful employment while her divorce is still pending. Generally, state laws preserve a couple’s financial status quo during this period. The earning spouse must continue paying the mortgage and other bills so that collateral belonging to the “marital estate” — the property and equity that will eventually be divided between spouses — is not lost. If you don’t have a job, a judge will most likely order temporary or “pendente lite” spousal support during this time as well, so you can purchase groceries and take care of your own personal necessary expenses.
Financial support from your ex-spouse after your divorce is not a right. Receiving it generally depends on why you’re unemployed. If you’ve never worked and have no job skills, a judge is more likely to order spousal support than if you’ve earned a college degree and have voluntarily chosen not to use it. If your husband has retained an attorney, that attorney will probably ask the court to send you for a vocational assessment to find out what your employable skills are and what you could be expected to earn if you did work. The expert’s assessment of your earning ability will usually guide the judge’s decision regarding ongoing alimony post-divorce. Most judges will expect you to contribute something to your own support.
If you’re relatively young, a judge might order temporary support or alimony to extend a few years after your divorce. This concept goes by different names in different states. Some jurisdictions call it rehabilitative alimony; others call it limited or short-term support. It provides you with an income long enough to allow you to go back to school or otherwise develop skills you can use to get a job and eventually earn your own living. If you do have job skills but haven’t used them because your husband’s income was such that you didn’t have to work, short-term support provides you with an income for a period of time until you can find a job in your field.
Judges usually reserve awards of long-term alimony or spousal support for older wives following a marriage of 10 years or more. Some states call this permanent alimony. It generally lasts until you remarry or you or your husband die. Permanent alimony is more common when you’ve devoted your entire life to raising your children and you’re now past an age where either a judge or your husband can reasonably expect you to go back to school and learn new skills. Ultimately, whether you have to find a job after such a marriage depends on the compassion of your particular judge.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.