(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Geoff Williams
Dec 24 (Reuters) - If Hugh McSharry’s marriage had come to an end a generation ago, he might have felt uncomfortable accepting alimony.
But when his divorce was finalized almost two years ago, in February 2012, McSharry had no qualms about asking a court for spousal support. Nor did he receive any blowback from family or friends or even his ex-wife.
“It wasn’t a big sticking point,” McSharry, 50, says of negotiating for alimony. “She knew obviously that she’s very successful and was the primary earner in our family.”
McSharry is the father of three and a partner in a small medical device company. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, he does okay financially, but his ex-wife is an orthopedic surgeon, and she does very, very well.
Divorce attorneys across the country are seeing a rise in men asking ex-wives for spousal support, also known as alimony.
Up-to-date numbers are hard, if not impossible, to come by. According to 2010 Census records, of the 400,000 people receiving spousal support, only 3 percent were men. Last year, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers surveyed its 1,600 members and found that 47 percent had noticed an increase in the number of women who are paying alimony.
Still, as women increasingly become the chief breadwinners, and with the rise of stay-at-home fathers, that 3 percent number is likely to rise, if it hasn’t already.
“Ten years ago, when I was probably three years into my career, was the first time I saw a woman pay spousal support. This year alone, I’ve had seven cases where the woman is paying support,” says Justin Reckers, CEO of Pacific Divorce Management, a San Diego-based financial planning firm for people divorcing.
The change is because social mores are changing, says Penelope Hefner, an attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina, who is also seeing an increase in men asking for spousal support.
“More fathers stay at home, and more women earn more than their husbands,” Hefner says. “This shift in the economic balance naturally leads to a shift in the proportion of husbands seeking support.”
Society is starting to catch up to the law. In 1979, with Orr vs. Orr, the Supreme Court made it clear that there shouldn’t be gender bias when it comes to alimony. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that some men don’t always have equal outcomes when it comes to receiving spousal support.
For one, the law may state that there shouldn’t be gender bias, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, says McSharry. “I absolutely believe the judge, who was a woman, had a kind of mentality where she didn’t feel I deserved alimony because I‘m a man,” says McSharry, who receives $5,000 a month from his ex-wife.
And it isn’t just the judges who are skeptical that men deserve alimony. Hefner says that “men are often more willing to drop their requests in divorce negotiations than women are.”
Convincing some reluctant, prideful male clients to negotiate for alimony can take some doing, but it’s usually just a matter of showing them the math, according to Steven Eisman, a matrimonial attorney in New York. “He tends to want it when he realizes that without it he’s going to be living in a basement apartment,” Eisman says.
It’s safe to say that nobody enjoys paying alimony, and that some spouses, male or female, get alimony that they arguably don’t deserve. Reckers sees a lot of women preferring to give their ex-husbands a lump sum of money in lieu of ongoing alimony “because they don’t want to have a former husband on the payroll for an extended period of time.”
Sandy Arons, a certified financial divorce specialist in Brentwood, Tennessee, says that it seems to be easier for divorcing men with children to ask for alimony, but she recently helped a man without kids receive spousal support.
“She didn’t want to pay anything,” Arons says. “But the purpose of alimony in that case was to help him get on his feet. He wasn’t unemployed, but when you’re in a household with two incomes, you can afford to have a job where you’re happy and you like it and you don’t have to be in turbo-mode in your career.”
Now, Arons says, the alimony will allow her client to have a cushion while he finds a better job.
When a man works less, such as not chasing after a job that requires a lot of travel and time so he can run the household more efficiently while his wife goes after the big bucks, “it’s no different than a woman who compromises her career,” she says.
McSharry concurs. McSharry, who never wanted a divorce, says his ex-wife is a great mom, but she has a demanding career, and he purposely avoided a super-charged career so the kids wouldn’t have two parents who were always being called away by their jobs.
Alimony, no matter what the gender, is justified, McSharry says. "If you brought value into the relationship, you should be able to take that value out of it," he notes. (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Lauren Young and Leslie Adler)