Sociologist says no-fault divorce burdens women

When California passed the nation's first no-fault divorce law in 1970, judges, lawyers, and sociologists hailed the measure as a revolutionary step. ``The law sounded fair and sensible,'' recalls Lenore J. Weitzman, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University. ``It was going to remove all the acrimony from the divorce process, and it was going to allow people to remain parents to their children. I was really excited. I thought it was terrific. I started out seeing this halo around the law.''

Fifteen years later, that halo looks badly tarnished to Miss Weitzman. Acrimony may have declined, but so, she reports, has economic protection for millions of women and children.

Eighty-five percent of divorced women are awarded no alimony at all. When judges divide family income, they often give the husband two-thirds and the wife and children one-third. And despite court orders, noncustodial fathers fail to pay nearly $4 billion in child support each year. As a result, divorced women and their children experience a 73 percent drop in their standard of living during the first year, while their former husbands enjoy a 42 percent rise in theirs.

These are among the sobering statistics from a 10-year study of divorce, based on an analysis of 2,500 divorce records and interviews with hundreds of judges, attorneys, and divorced men and women. Miss Weitzman explains her findings in her new book, ``The Divorce Revolution: the Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America'' (The Free Press, $19.95).

``When I first found cases of middle-class women who had been cut off with no support or minimal support and were told to go out and get jobs after being homemakers and mothers for 25 years -- and who lost their home so the home could be sold -- I thought they were exceptions,'' Miss Weitzman said in an interview. ``And when I saw the low child-support awards and the women who couldn't collect, I thought, `Oh, they probably had a bad attorney or got the wrong judge.' I had a hard time recognizing how

normal it was for women to be suffering, really suffering as the result of divorce.''

Miss Weitzman points out that ``no-fault took away women's legal leverage to bargain as aggrieved parties. It's not just no fault, it's also no consent. One person can unilaterally say, `I want a divorce,' and the other person has no right to do anything to prevent it.''

Hardest hit have been middle- and upper-middle-class women, groups formerly protected by alimony and child support. Alimony awards to mothers of preschool children, she says, ``have dropped more than for any other group,'' with only 13 percent receiving spousal support.

``It's also especially terrible for women in longer marriages,'' she continues. ``Standards that seem appropriate for a young woman of 25 who has a career and has no children are suddenly being applied to women of 55 who have never had a career and have spent their lives raising children. That seems totally unfair. This has to be in part a backlash. The evidence is just inescapable that some lawyers and judges are saying, `Well, if women want equality, we'll give them equality.' ''

These technical attempts at equality are misguided, Miss Weitzman believes, because of the economic inequalities that marriage creates and the economic inequalities between men and women in the larger society.

``I don't see us in the near future getting the kind of equality among women that would allow the premise of the current law, which is that men and women can be equal -- equally responsible for supporting themselves after a divorce,'' she says. ``That's because I assume we're still going to have children in most families. Women are still much more likely to be the primary caretakers. That always disadvantages that spouse's career.''

Even in two-paycheck marriages, she notes, the husband's career is usually the center of the marriage. Citing a study of two-career PhD couples, she indicates that 80 percent of the women let the husband take the initiative in the job market. ``Even when a woman has invested in a PhD, probably six years of her life in a professional education, she's still moving so he can take the first job. So I don't see this great egalitarian revolution in internal family patterns.''

Alleviating some of the injustices in the current system, she says, requires a redefinition of marital property. Instead of counting only tangible assets such as the family home, furnishings, cars, and investments, courts must also consider career assets. These include pensions, health insurance, education, and professional licenses. To exclude these from divorce settlements, she notes, is ``like promising to divide the family jewels equally but allowing the husbands to keep all of the diamonds.

``The courts often say today, `Well, she has a career, she can take care of herself, we don't have to worry about her.' In some of these arrangements they say, `She'll keep her pension, he'll keep his pension.' That isn't fair, because his pension may be worth $60,000 and her pension may be worth $20,000. There's still a discrepancy in career assets. The only way I see to be fair about dividing assets is to add them together and then divide them equally. Marriage is a partnership. If two people really b elieve in the partnership, everything they acquire during the marital partnership should be joint property and should be divided equally.

``Men used to think pensions were theirs,'' she continues. ``But as soon as the rules changed and they saw that the pension really was a marital asset, they found ways to deal with it. Very few of the men we interviewed said, `I don't think it's fair to divide the pension.' Once they're told that that's the law, they accept it. The law is so important. Lawyers socialize their clients to believe that what the law says is right.''

Miss Weitzman's call for legal and judicial change becomes more urgent in light of recent census data. Projections show that 60 percent of all children born in the United States today will spend part of their lives in single-parent families. Among women in their 20s today, 40 percent can expect to be in a single-parent family at some time. Already half of single-parent, mother-headed families live in poverty.

To reduce that poverty, she recommends that child-support awards be based on an income-sharing approach to equalize the standards of living in the custodial and noncustodial household after divorce. Awards should also include automatic adjustments for cost-of-living increases.

One progressive step came Oct. 1 when the Child Support Enforcement Amendments went into effect, requiring wage garnishment and intercepts on income tax refunds for parents who do not pay court-ordered child support.

``Our studies show that men who earn between $30,000 and $50,000 a year were just as likely not to comply fully with child support orders as men who earn only $10,000,'' Miss Weitzman says. ``We've made it so easy for them not to pay, so optional that they knew they could get away with it.''

She also recommends a law requiring support for children over 18 who are still dependent. ``Those women who aren't getting child support because their kids are over 18 and are supposed to be independent in fact are supporting children in college. That's a very heavy burden.''

For older women who divorce after long marriages, there must be ``grandmother clauses'' allowing them to keep the family home and maintain the same standard of living as their ex-husband, she says. ``It is unfair to change the rules on them in the middle of the game.''

And for mothers who retain major responsibility for the care of minor children, she advocates continued use of the family home (considered part of the child-support award rather than an unequal division of property) and a significant portion of an ex-husband's income so the two households maintain fairly equal standards of living.

Beyond these legislative reforms, how can women protect themselves while they are still married?

First, Miss Weitzman says, ``It's very important for all women to be knowledgeable about the type of assets they have.''

In addition, ``consider a legal contract that says, in effect, `If I take time out from my career to be a mother, to invest in your career, to be a helpmate, then we have to recognize that I deserve something in return for that.' In fact that's the implicit contract.''

Finally, she says, couples need to ``understand how valuable a marriage and a family can be, and do things to make sure it works -- to give it their full priority. I think if more people knew about the current results of the system of divorce, they would invest more in their marriages. They would realize how valuable that marriage is.''

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