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Über ehestablisierende Rechtstechniken
On Marriage-Stabilizing Legal Techniques
by Prof. Dr. Hans Hattenhauer
Zeitschrift fuer das gesamte Familienrecht (FamZ) 1989, page 225 et. seq.
Summary and Explanation by Antje S. Heinemann, J.D., with assistance by John Crouch, J.D., and Susan Winston, J.D. candidate, University of Miami School of Law
In this article Prof. Hattenhauer deals with the need to stabilize marriages and the legal instruments and techniques to do so.
As marriage is a lifelong relationship it is always endangered by its duration. Because of the changes of various circumstances such as society, the spouses’ financial situation and economic development/expansion etc., marriage has lost a lot of its functions and is therefore today even more deemed to be only a short-term rather than a long-term “operation”.
But how have humans in history of mankind been able to make marriages work as a long-term relationship and make this long-term relationship an ideal of a marriage? Knowing that trust of only biological/emotional forces and the spouses’ good will are not enough to make a marriage a “long-term operation”, former cultures have stabilized it with various techniques.
As Hattenhauer states that there is up to now hardly no fundamental scientific research on this issue, he limits his point of view in his article to marriage-stabilizing legal techniques. This makes him first think of some very general questions such as: What is society’s moral understanding and what is universally valid? What is the general social consensus that courts must respect? At what point is the jurisdiction exceeding its authority when it determines what the ideal of marriage?
To find answers he works with various theses:
Marriage is the foundation of family. Family is based on marriage and – at best – includes children. In contrast to this, any other model of a “family” such as homosexual cohabitation, a commune or heterosexual cohabitation without being married is not legally binding and it can therefore not achieve the same privileges as a marriage.
Marriage is an “enterprise for maintenance”. As society has changed into an industrial society and the welfare state has been established, marriage has lost a lot of its maintenance character and functions. However, it has never totally ceased to be an “enterprise for maintenance”, which is shown by the unbroken importance of support payments. This support for spouses and children will never be completely replaced by government.
In addition to this financial “maintenance”, marriages also give enormous personal and emotional support. This support is not replaceable at all. Today, this support is even more appreciated than ever before.
Up to now the maintenance character of marriage (both financial and emotional) has been obvious. After the long-term period of upbringing the children the period of growing old usually began. The parents then needed support and care-taking themselves.
But increased life expectancy, both parents’ working, and the social security system have created a completely new period between these two periods. During this phase the spouses are usually not aware of their mutual maintenance obligations and therefore the duration of marriage is weakened. As also sexual morality has changed, marriage has furthermore lost a lot of its sexual maintenance character.
The ecclesiastical sacrament of marriage has been replaced by the civil marriage. Today, marriage is legally understood as a contract.
Although we see today all these changes to the maintenance character of a marriage, there is still a huge private interest for stability in marriages. It is important for governmental authorities to assure a process of stabilization, as stable marriages ensure the people’s life quality.
People entering a marriage often have to make sacrifices such as giving up parts of their personal freedom or privacy. As some kind of compensation the state is giving them married privileges and protection by law. Art. 6 GG, (i.e. Grundgesetz, the German constitution) for example, protects family and marriage. To give the same bonuses to other, less legally binding, types of relationships won’t be justified. These bonuses are such as, but are not limited to, support, inheritance, child custody, and in case of dissolution of marriage, a system to solve conflicts as the law determines alimony, support, division of pension rights etc.
As, because of the great public interest in long-term marriages, smart states have developed certain marriage-stabilizing policies, they have laid down marriage and family in the constitution.
The history of occidental marriage has been the history of the privatization of marriage. Marriage has become more and more a subject of the couple’s dispositions. Today spouses can determine nearly everything regarding their marital relationship. Since spouses can do so, such agreements, their compliance and their enforcement, need protection by the government.
The process of privatization is neither irreversible nor deplorable. Privatization is justified as an act of liberation from governmental constraints.
After the breakdown of the middle-class model of marriage (after 1968) as the “moral monopoly,” we find today a pluralism of ideals of marriage. The question today is: What kind of law do we need in times of pluralism, which does justice to all models and groups? What kind of law does not impose too much stabilization to the ones not interested, and does not refuse to give stability to the ones who ask for it? How can the government take care of marriages and create a law that meets all interests? How does a catalog of acknowledged ideals of marriages look like?
In the history of marriage, the non-formal (regarding the entering and dissolution of marriage) Roman marriage, the “matrimonium liberum”, has been surprisingly durable. Alfred Soellner has stated that the reason for this stability was the use of a certain legal technique: the dowry, the “dos”. The dowry was the father-in-law’s contribution to the husband in a considerable amount of money to give the marriage a binding character. The marriage and the financial contribution were strictly connected. Conversely, only an endowed marriage was acknowledged as a valid marriage. A marriage without dowry instead was regarded as void.
The dowry was highly important to wives. It was so important that the father-in-law sometimes had to impose it on the husband. The financial contribution was also a matter of the wife’s reputation. A woman who was not endowed was contemptuous. If the family was poor, the daughter sometimes had to go to the brothel.
The purpose of the dowry was to stabilize the marriage: The profits made out of the financial contribution were used to maintain the family, especially during the first years. The ongoing sanctions in case of conflicts guaranteed the existence of the marriage. Both spouses had to take care of the marriage to be entitled to the benefits of the financial contribution. In case of adultery or filing a divorce, e.g., the wife lost all her entitlements for the return of the contribution in total. If the husband wanted to commit adultery or wanted to get divorced he had to be afraid of losing the dowry, which helped to keep him from doing so. It was also possible for the wife to determine a contractual penalty for the husband, which he had to pay if he had a concubine. In general one could say: He who wanted to give his wife back had to give the contribution back.
According to Hattenhauer this was the reason why marriages without dowry had always been more endangered by divorce than others, and why the Romans preferred marriages within one’s station. A poor wife could be easily rejected but in case of a high dowry the rejection always meant a bad loss. On the other hand, a marriage with a high dowry was sometimes quite difficult to handle for a poor husband, because then he had to endure the moods of his rich wife. Thus, the Romans found the ideal marriage where there was a dowry and the financial background had been equal.
Hattenhauer then describes the marriage in the rabbinical-talmudical law and states that it was quite similar to the Roman model: Without a trousseau a woman was not allowed to marry. If necessary the money was taken from the community’s funds for the poor. In addition to that, there was also the dowry (which could be in property or money). The dowry always continued to be the property of the wife but was administrated by her husband, who often had a right of usufruct of it. The couples necessarily had to settle upon a marital agreement. Beside certain other agreements the spouses agreed about the “Ketubah”, which was the sometimes considerably high amount of money the husband had to pay in case of the dissolution of marriage (divorce or death). The amount had to be in accordance with a minimum sum and depended on the amount of the dowry. A marriage without a “Ketubah” was not completely valid and considered as a concubinage.
Hattenhauer states that both dowry and “Ketubah” stabilized marriages. As the capital stock usually was invested in the husband’s enterprises, his cravings for divorce were reasonably minimized. On the other hand a mean wife, whose “Ketubah” had been high enough, could sometimes leave the husband desperate. To explain this dilemma Hattenhauer cites the case of Rabbi Nachman: He couldn’t get divorced from his mean wife because the “Ketubah” was too high, but his disciples finally collected the money to pay him off and gave him freedom.
The purpose of the “Ketubah” to stabilize marriages was clear: The rabbis created the “Ketubah” to make it more difficult for the husband to leave his wife.
Hattenhauer then examines the German model and states that the German law did not adopt the Roman model schematic. In the 17th – 19th century it was held that the common marital agreements in Germany didn’t comply with the narrow frame of the Roman “pacta dotalia” because they were not limited only to financial transactions. Up to the effective date of the BGB, (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, i.e. Civil Code), January 1900, the Germans and Europeans practiced marriage-stabilizing by using various kinds of marital agreements. They had various names, varieties, and a high practical importance. They had such names as pactum dotale, pactum nuptiale, Ehepakt, Ehegedinge, Ehestiftung, Eheberedung, and Brautlaufbrief.
A marital agreement was defined as any legal transaction that determines rights and obligations of spouses. The essence of those agreements was that there were personal and financial agreements at the same time. However, the financial settlements – the agreement about the husband’s or wife’s financial contribution to the marriage – predominated. Being an important financial source for the maintenance of the family, the assets were important to stabilize marriages. The husband administrated the estate and was liable for its continued existence. In these marital agreements the spouses could also agree about the husband making a contribution to the wife in return, or a security payment for the dowry.
Those types of marital agreements were not only settled between rustic, but also aristocratic, spouses.
Beside the above mentioned possible settlements the German marital agreement in these times above all also contained agreements about inheritance (wills or any other kind of inheritance transactions). The spouses, e.g., agreed about the future of financial contributions, reciprocal assigning, and provision for children. The husband also often agreed that his heirs had to support his wife after his death. Thus, marital agreements and agreements about inheritance went hand in hand. The variety of such agreements was enormous, especially in the area of non-codified law, where spouses had creative scope.
The personal decisions in marital agreement included mainly decisions about parenting, religion or an agreement about the place of residence. The custody often was transferred completely to the wife. The spouses also settled agreements about support and education of the children in case of their divorce or agreed about contractual penalties if for example one of them refused the performance of matrimony.
Hattenhauer states that there are good grounds to consider the German model as a Christian model. In comparison between the Roman and Jewish model on one side and the Christian model on the other side you will find that the most important difference is that the church never stabilized marriages by using financial transactions. As the Christian model of marriage, the holy sacrament, can never be dissolved, and assets were not necessary to enter one, this model didn’t need financial transactions. In addition to that, social classes were not important at all, and even poor people or slaves could enter a marriage.
According to the Roman model the limits of contractual freedom only were the compulsory law and morality. The various effective laws in former times gave the spouses different kinds of creative freedom. The “Preussische Allgemeine Landrecht” from 1794 hardly contained hardly any regulation about marital agreements, but regulated everything regarding the marriage itself. The “Saechsische Buergerliche Gesetzbuch” from 1863/1865 regulated everything in great detail.
All those regulations described as what is today known as the principle of morality, § 138 BGB (Buergerliches Gesetzbuch, the German Civil Code). According to the institutional character of a marriage as an ideal in the 19th century, a marriage rather was a moral than a legal phenomenon. Morality was then the most important limit on the freedom of contracts. In those times it was therefore determined in a very detailed manner what kind of agreements were void because of immorality: any agreement in which the spouses:
- assigned the wife to the husband’s power
- waived matrimony, sexual intercourse and joint residency
- waived the obligation of reciprocal care-taking
- excluded any litigation regarding marriages
- took away the husband’s benefits from the wife’s financial contribution such as the dowry
- adjourned the maturity to make the dowry to a date after the dissolution of this marriage
- conceded the other spouse the right of adultery or criminal behaviour
- limited the husband’s liability to administrate the wife’s dowry
An agreement was also void when it deprived the surviving wife of her property and gave it to the husband’s relatives after his death. In those times, people nonetheless believed that the above-listed limits gave the spouses enough contractual freedom.
According to Hattenhauer the end of this type of marital agreements came with the creation and effective date of the BGB (Buergerliches Gesetzbuch, i.e. the German Civil Code) in January 1900. From that time on, a marital agreement was defined as a contract which only determines the system of marital property. It did not determine any other kind of financial or personal matters. The 1901 book of annotations, Planckscher Kommentar, stated that a marital agreement is a contract used by spouses to determine their system of marital property. On the negative side you can not understand it as a contract which determines personal matters such as the wife’s obligation to follow her husband or the decisions about parenting, etc. Whether such agreements are valid and can be enforced depends on their accordance with the nature of marriage and morality. However, such agreement is not a marital agreement pursuant to § 1432 BGB.
From that time on, people didn’t acknowledge agreements about any personal matters anymore, even if they had done so in a tradition of hundreds of years. According to Hattenhauer the annotation shows the skeptical understanding of the validity of such contracts very clearly, because it points out the fact that such contracts had to be in accordance with the nature of a marriage. Because the BGB was understood as defining the nature of marriage in those times, consequently every agreement about personal matters was void, because it differed from the model described in the BGB.
The annotation to the first draft of the BGB had the same understanding:
“The draft acknowledges the principle of contractual freedom. However, it also points out the limits of contractual freedom. An agreement can only be valid as long as is not in contradiction to the nature of marriage. Agreements about the regulations regarding the marital status of spouses such as e.g. their legal relationship are void in general because those regulations are the necessary essence of marital relationships.”
By citing Art. 199 EGBGB (Einfuehrungsgesetz zum BGB, the Introduction Act to the BGB) Hattenhauer reaches the conclusion that the German law in those times didn’t favor such marital agreements anymore:
“The personal relations between spouses, especially their obligation to pay support, are determined by the regulations of the BGB, even if they concern a marriage before the effective date of BGB.”
Hattenhauer believes that the purpose of this was to eliminate agreements regarding personal matters in general. In his opinion, therefore, The Marital Agreement by Albert von Baldigands (1906) was a fundamental book which pointed out that such agreements are no longer marital agreements.
Regarding this new legal understanding of marital agreements Hattenhauer cites two cases:
In 1900 a court had to decide about an agreement in which the husband agreed to have his place of residence at the wife’s land property, and promised to cultivate the land. The wife sued the husband, and the court held that she had no right to demand performance of the agreement, because only the husband had the right to decide about the place of residency (pursuant to § 1354 BGB). It was also held that even if the agreement had been valid until the effective date of the BGB, it had become void.
In 1905 the courts had to decide again about a marital agreement made before the effective date of the BGB. In this case the husband had waived his right to administrate the wife’s estate, and had waived his right to use it. In consideration of this, the wife had waived her right to receive support from her husband. The court held that a contractual waiver regarding support is void and that it did not make a difference if the wife’s waiver was made freely or not.
From that time on it was case law, and the annotations stated, that all agreements about personal matters were void. They were not in accordance with the nature of marriage.
Hattenhauer says that one reason for this change in opinion about marital agreements and the mistrust against them might lie in the effort to create a uniform/homogeneous family and inheritance law. He argues that the authors of the BGB were proud that they had limited the former variety of 100 systems of marital property to only five. He therefore reaches the conclusion that it was only reasonable that nobody wanted to destroy this success and give the spouses their contractual freedom back.
The authors of the BGB were also convinced that they had created marriage as a “timeless and exhaustive institution,” and that they had created a truly moral model of marriage with equal rights for wife and husband by upholding the traditional roles. This middle class model of marriage was regarded as exclusive. As marriage and family were the cornerstones of the middle class, Hattenhauer believes that this was the reason why the middle class didn’t want to make any concessions for the benefit of the spouses’ individual liberty, and the demand for contractual freedom only led to mistrust.
However, in this new model of marriage the husband still had to be afraid of losing assets by leaving his wife. The new system was still able to stabilize a marriage because of the continued existence of a very traditional social order and the principle of marrying within one’s station.
Hattenhauer believes that this legislation would have been useless if the people’s understanding of marital obligations of spouses had not been generally shared. He also believes that the model was secured by society’s morality. He states that even socialists had the same opinion about sexuality, marriage, family etc. in those times. So he reaches the conclusion that the general moral understanding helped to make the courts find every agreement differing from the BGB void because of immorality.
According to Hattenhauer the acknowledgement of this model of marriage was also supported by society’s unbroken trust in their assets. It was e.g. not immoral if the fathers-in-law sat down and started calculating the amount of the assets while the spouses just enjoyed their love. But only after two decades, in the 1920s, the trust in the assets, and the assets themselves, were melted away by inflation, so marriage-stabilizing couldn’t be achieved by financial contributions anymore. Society was forced to look for new stabilizing techniques.
Hattenhauer states that from this time on a new “asset” for a wife to bring into the marriage was a solid vocational training, as a form of social security. People believed that this asset could not melt away even in times of inflation. The fact that both spouses were working turned out to be a stabilizing factor for marriage, especially regarding its psychological balance. Besides her dowry her vocational training now gave the wife stability even if she gave up her profession to become a housewife. However, even then, stability was still achieved by society’s constraints and traditional case law.
Hattenhauer then describes the current status quo:
- marriage has lost its protection by law
- middle-class morality has lost its general prestige
- the number of divorces and the number of children of divorce who are skeptical of marriage have increased
- the model of an “emancipatory marriage” has replaced the middle-class model of marriage
- the stabilizing legal techniques such as “Zugewinn- and Versorgungsausgleich” (equitable distribution including property and pensions) can be abolished by marital agreements
- the loss of faith and trust in marriage made the concubinage more attractive
- the loss of the husband’s responsibility for the wife’s social security (because of her ability to work) has increased the marriage-age of wives, reduced the number of children born into the marriage, and increased the number of disabled children.
According to Hattenhauer the traditional middle-class model of marriage has no binding character anymore and the “emancipatory model” of marriage is a fad without a function. He believes that this pluralism of models cannot be resolved by giving one of them priority, and that the role of the law is reduced to setting only the frameworks for what might be binding and what might not.
Today, there are various answers regarding the question of what is legally binding, or what is the nature of marriage and therefore is protected by the Code’s principle of morality (§ 138 BGB). Prof. Gernhuber, e.g., names various principles which he thinks are binding:
“ The principle to be free to enter a marriage,  that spouses make a contract by entering a marriage,  the principle of monogamy,  that marriage can only be between a woman and a man,  the spouses’ obligation to live in matrimony,  that marriage can only be dissolved by death.”
Hattenhauer asks what kind of legal techniques we need in our changed society today, if we see those principles as binding? As the traditional pre-1900 marital agreement, varying the standard obligations of marriage, is back and practiced again, he believes that it can be used as a stabilizing legal technique. The determination of personal and financial matters in those agreements can help to give marriages a more binding character than the law itself does. Hattenhauer states that the creation of various types of such marital agreements has already begun and will continue. Those new marital agreements still find their limits of contractual freedom in illegality (§ 134 BGB) and morality (§ 138 BGB).
Looking at spouses’ considerations as they enter a marital agreement, you will find that hardly anybody has considered it as a stabilizing factor. You will also find that people haven’t paid much attention yet to agreeing on personal matters, nor to agreeing about certain personal sanctions, in a marital agreement, in contrast to financial matters and financial sanctions. According to Hattenhauer the demand for individualized agreements and regulations is especially high. He states that personal matters included in agreements can be: the decision to have children and their raising, the decision who works and who does the household work, the place of residence, the things you do in your leisure time, holidays, relationships with relatives and in-laws, religious decisions, decisions about the procedure to solve conflicts or problems, etc. As each of his listed personal matters can cause a conflict and might destroy a marriage if it cannot be solved, he argues, spouses should agree in a marital agreement about those personal matters and should therefore also agree about sanctions to avoid conflicts and the dissolution of the marriage.
As the regulations in the BGB regarding divorce, and high costs, do not deter spouses from the decision to get divorced, Hattenhauer thinks that it might aid the stabilization of marriages if spouses could agree to limit their right to get divorced. He states that any useful suggestions on this are still missing, and people miss the mark by only agreeing about financial sanctions. Prof. Langenfeld suggested having different systems regarding the financial consequences of ending a marriage, distinguishing between ending because of divorce and ending because of death.
Even the BGH (Supreme Court) had already to decide about the use of assets for the purpose of marriage-stabilizing. A marriage entered in 1976 in a mosque in Munich between Islamic spouses included an agreement about a payment in the amount of 100.000 DM in case of getting divorced. The BGH held that the agreement is valid under the freedom of contract. Thus, it was held that agreeing about financial sanctions in case of divorce is valid. It was also held that this was not a contract about the system of marital property, and therefore it did not have to be in one specific form (such as for example under § 1410 BGB).
But no courage to make such decisions on personal matters can be found yet. Hattenhauer asks why we go about this complicated detour by using only financial sanctions to encourage the continued existence of marriage. Don’t we exclude from the opportunity of contractual stabilizing those spouses who don’t have considerable assets to lose? Why isn’t it possible to let all couples stabilize their marriages by using clear and formulated clauses? He hopes that the lawyers will improve upon this opportunity.
Then he comes back to his contested thesis about the possibility to waive the right to get divorced. First of all he states six theses:
The train of thought is again, for example:
Wife and husband, both Catholics, want to get married and want their religion to become legally effective (in addition to the official governmental ceremony). Using Privatization in order to express their religious beliefs, the couple creates a marital agreement that they will not get divorced. In addition the agreement states that any litigation of marital issues will be decided by means of arbitration and the arbitrator shall be an ecclesiastical judge.
If the spouses then get into conflict there are two choices: Both agree to change the marital agreement, revoke their waiver and both can move the court for a conventional divorce. That means that nobody can jump out of the marriage hastily. If the other spouse refuses to agree about the change of the marital agreement the spouse will then move the court to decide. But the Respondent can make the objection that the court has no jurisdiction because of the agreed clause regarding arbitration. If the respondent moves to the court of arbitration, he or she will be forced to find a mediated solution. If there is no arbitrated solution the arbitrator will dismiss the motion to get divorced because of the agreed waiver. The Petitioner can appeal by citing § 1041 Nr. 2 ZPO and proving the immorality of the Respondent’s objection regarding the waiver. Finally, the way out of a marriage should never be absolutely excluded as the last solution, but the way out should be restricted. This complies with the principle of tolerance and pluralism.
It is now necessary to show what sort of model of marriage will be more successful. In open concurrence to the already existing variety of dangerous and insecure models of concubinages, we will have a variety of secure marital agreements in which the demand for stability and the waiver of the right to get divorced will find their place. It will be personal self-fulfillment instead of being kept in leading strings by the government: In dubio pro libertate! [Meaning, in all cases that are in doubt, rule in favor of freedom. In English law, stated as “in statu dubio semper erit pro libertate iudicandum”. Bracton, f. 191 b]
The article starts with costs so trivial as to be ridiculous, but then follows out some very foreseeable and common consequences -- separate vacations, faraway hideaways, therapy, marriage counseling, separation, restraining orders among new partners and old, loss of security clearances and arms-bearing rights for people under restraining orders, divorce, increased divorce-lawyer costs as the adultery makes every issue in the divorce more vicious and hard-fought, job loss for workplace affairs, a few months of unemployment, and finally a new job that pays 20% less.
The writing tone is a little bit like a typical canned article, what Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones called "a two-shrink, five-friend" article, except that the subject is so rarely brought up in the media, though it has always been a huge topic in life, art and literature. There's a bit of copy-editing, or lack thereof, that's really surprising in a top-flight source like Forbes. A couple times I thought I was reading one of those odd articles that are taken from real ones, then run through a couple translators and/or some guys in India who didn't qualify for jobs with the gang that calls people up pretending to be "Windows." That's happened to many of my own articles. It ends oddly, like a freshman term paper ending at the exact turn-in deadline with a neat balancing of supposed opposites that actually makes no sense, resting on assumptions and definitions that reveal the author to know far less of the basic terms and context than it appeared from the introduction as it rose slowly through 50 shades of obvious, or from the body of the paper as the student could lean this way and that on quotations and cautiously slight paraphrases of opposing authorities on the topic. Anyhow, back to the Forbes article. No, wait, this lamest conclusion that I've seen, except in term papers that potential interns send me as writing samples, goes on for two paragraphs of appalling shallowness, totally betraying the whole point of the article by nattering about these things as if they were subjects one would encounter for the first and last time in a college class, and never in real life:
"Who are the people engaging in these covert relationships? Nika Kabiri, Director of Strategic Insights for Avvo, the company which offers a fixed fee uncontested divorce, recently conducted a relationship study to uncover this answer.
Avvo is where you go for reliable studies of marriage? I mean, they're a great company for what they do, and I'm sure Kabiri and his team are good at studying their potential customers, but there are actual disinterested scholars, statisticians and therapists who study these things, many of whom are studying how to keep more marriages healthy and together, not to grow the number of people who get ensnarled in family/legal problems.
"Kabiri found that 61% of Americans are unhappily married.
[I've never seen a figure over the high 40s.]
"Yet only ¼ of these people say that divorce is inevitable if one no longer wants a romantic relationship with his/her spouse. In fact, nearly 80% believe in staying together so much so that they are open to exploring alternatives to breaking up. Only half of these people say that if their partner wanted an open relationship they would leave him or her. [What about those who respond with, "Oh No, you won't,", among many others?] In other words half who are confronted with a partner who wants to stray are willing to talk about it, work through it, maybe even be part of an open relationship.
[Uh, you're not curious about defining who wants to fix the marriage versus who wants an 'open relationship'?]
"While on the surface it seems that having an affair is financially a more affordable road than divorc'em this is not necessarily the case. Clearly the emotional, mental and financial hardship could end up being more detrimental than enduring a divorce."
Huh? Despite everything in the first half of the article, now "Having an Affair"and "Divorce'Em" are not cause-and-effect, but the two mutually exclusive alternatives for a Smart Shopper to thoughtfully consider? All that talk about how a marriage that grows unhappy doesn't have to devolve into divorce, and in fact 80% of them recover, and suddenly the only alternatives to divorce are affairs and "open relationships"? Sick.
One of those crank lawsuits of a kind that gets filed and discarded every day has, for once, gotten big coverage in a mainstream newspaper. "Lawsuit claims divorce court is a racket: Dismissed at district level, case is being appealed to 9th Circuit". San Diego Union-Tribune.
If you polled people on the street, you'd find that to be a pretty common view, perhaps not a majority but a plurality of the same kind that makes the presidential primaries so interesting. But in the family court system, people who have cases there, and start saying things like that, are treated like the lunatic fringe. To the judges and everyone else involved, the issue is no longer whatever substantive question was originally in dispute. The issue is now the disgruntled litigants' extremism and behavior. They are sometimes put under special orders keeping them from filing anything unless and until a single, permanently-designated judge has reviewed it and allowed it.
These litigants too often put their "last stands" on principle ahead of their actual parenting of their children. They are unwilling to bow and bend to a system they see as illegitimate and corrupt, even if they understand that that is the way to be treated better and get more time with their children.
Is the system a racket? No. Not where I work, anyway. But it doesn't have to be. It still works in a way that looks irrational to most people. It still takes people, some already cranky, and some fairly normal, perhaps even too nice, processes them, and cranks out a huge number of cranks.
When our state legislators and all those of us who help mold our culture, all the "second-hand dealers in ideas," as Hayek called us, decided decades ago to encourage widespread divorce, this was a major part of what we created.
Americans are not brought up and educated in how a family court system works. In the courts which we learn about on TV and in civics class, a jury of 12 average local people makes the big decisions, and the judge is just a referee. And those decisions are about who did something wrong and who gets punished.
Parents who have chosen divorce or unwed parenthood, or had it thrust upon them, have no idea that instead of that system, they are going into a system where regardless of fault or faultlessness, a judge will tell them in great detail how to live and move and raise their children, now and forever until they all are grown. Nor that instead of one big trial to establish guilt or innocence and resolve everything, they may be back in court every few weeks, months or years, for enforcement, monitoring, and revision of those orders.
In that way, the family law courts work like the ecclesiastical and chancery courts that used to handle family issues, the ones that Dickens savaged in novels like Bleak House. And for good reasons, because a family is not like a business contract or a car accident.
But they also feature the most delaying, expensive, and inflammatory features of the American legal system, because this is America -- you always have the right to your day in court, to litigate about everything, to insist on strict compliance with the rules of evidence -- even when dealing with areas of life where people don't generally keep the relevant evidence, or where no witnesses are there when the really important stuff happens, or where evidence and testimony are easily faked. You can always appeal, and appeal. You have to go through all the expensive, exhausting procedures that were designed for big business litigation. Your lawyers have the ethical duty to do what you say you want, after doing their ethical duty to advise you about a bewildering array of awful things that you could do to your ex and your ex might even now be doing to you. And each of these individual things is necessary and proper, as part of the greatest legal system in the world. Even if you hate to comply with them and hate it when the other side does those things, you want the other side to comply and you want to be able to do those things to them.
That's the system we put far more families into when we tried to make divorce easier and more humane by enacting quick, unilateral, no-fault divorce, letting far more people jump straight into court without first working things out in an agreement.
At the end of 2017, couples began to be affected by Pennsylvania's the new divorce law, which cut the living-apart period before filing contested no-fault divorce litigation, without mutual consent and without all the financial and child-related issues worked out, from two years to one year. Carolyn R. Mirabile, a partner and family law group head at Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby in Norristown, Pa., looks back at what seemed to have worked better under the old law, and what improvements she hopes for from the new law.
-- from "ABATEMENT OF DIVORCE AND ANCILLARY PROCEEDINGS UPON THE DEATH OF A PARTY" by the National Legal Research Group, Inc.
Perez v. City of Roseville, as described in:
The House-passed GOP tax bill shifts the tax burden on alimony from alimony payors to recipients. I.e., about 97% of the time, from divorced women to divorced men, who we all assume are in higher tax brackets than their exes. Currently, alimony is considered part of the recipient's taxable income, and not the payor's. The change would affect alimomy from post-2017 court orders or agreements, including modifications of earlier orders.(There's one feature of the bill that's completely good, and apparently not controversial: Including alimony payments pursuant to a written marital agreement, with no court order, in the definition of alimony.)
It's important to sometimes pause from a search for subtle "incentives" and subliminal effects, and remind ourselves what the most basic and obvious effect of a policy change is: In this case, taxing men instead of women on tens of thousands, sometimes over $100,000, of annual income. Alimony is all or most of many divorced women's incomes, and can already take a very large fraction of some men's incomes. Virginia's guidelines call for at least 28% of a breadwinner's gross income as alimony to a non-working spouse, and that's before child support, and before any deductions from his paycheck for taxes, social security, etc.
Lawyers, journalists and even the National Organization for Women have attacked the proposal, not for being anti-male, but for changing the law's current incentive for men to agree to pay alimony, and thus reducing the amount of alimony women would get. The change probably would have that effect, but that whole argument probably only occurred to them because this is a Republican proposal and it fits the narrative of a GOP "War on Women". Ordinarily, women's groups would be all for something that shifts divorce women's tax burdens wholesale onto their exes.
Blogger Stuart Levine, and many columnists quoting him, including Kevin Drum at the usually more thorough Mother Jones, have really only speculated about why anyone would want to do such a thing. Liberal writers and the supposably* conservative proponents of the change seem to share the mutually convenient illusion that this is an attack on divorce, on behalf of Christian morality. But that simply has nothing to do with how divorce, alimony or taxes actually work. The GOP Ways & Means Committee Summary says only this on behalf of the change:
Frankly, living as close to Republican Washington as I do, it sounds like a young staffer who doesn't know anyone who pays alimony, who hasn't been invovled in a divorce, and just recently got off the parental tax returns and started filing form 1040-EZ, was thrown mysterious, possibly garbled instructions for changing something about alimony taxation, and was given 15 minutes to come up with some Republican-sounding arguments for it. But actually, the proposal was part of an early-2014 "Tax Reform Act" introduced by former Ways & Means chair Rep. Dave Camp, now retired, and the arguments above are repeated verbatim from the Committee Summary of that bill.
The "subsidy" argument, to the extent that it's either launched or received as an attempt to discourage divorce, partakes of the long-standing and totally wrongheaded assumption that "a couple" decides to get divorced, and may be incentivized, rewarded or punished for doing so. This dates back to the early days of no-fault divorce reform, when reformers picked the most compelling poster-children, decent people who both wanted to divorce but who were caged in "Holy Deadlock" by laws that denied them a divorce even when they both wanted one. Some conservatives and moralists, being apparently unfamiliar with divorce, and gullible about letting their opponents pick the battlefield and define its terms, compliantly responded that these couples were hastily giving up on their marriage and should be incentivized, restricted, counseled, and/or made to wait to see if it's what "they" really wanted. And whenever any change to loosen or tighten divorce laws is proposed, the same old arguments are dusted off, even though divorce decisions have long been unilateral and the proposed changes hardly ever would affect the "poster children" whom the arguments describe.
Individuals decide to divorce, pay taxes after divorce, and might or might not respond to incentives. Couples don't and can't.
The Committee's equality-based argument is even more surreal. Spousal support after separation or divorce is very different from what the Committee refers to as "spousal support within the context of a married couple", which it says should receive the same tax treatment. Uh, a married couple that isn't separated lives together as a family and an economic unit, and doesn't pay support checks to each other. And they can't get "the same tax treatment", because a married couple files taxes jointly or as the very disadvantageous "married filing separately", while divorced people file as single, or jointly with their new spouses. Again, this sounds like college debaters grasping for arguments about parts of adult life that they know nor care nothing about.
Here's what might have led to this: Veteran Congressman Lloyd Doggett D-TX last year was pushing a plan to require 1099s for alimony payments, citing a Treasury study showing about $2.3 billion a year in alimony excluded from payors' income but never reported by recipients. He wanted to use the revenue it gleaned to help states improve their foster care systems."He has been discussing the issue with Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady," Congressional Quarterly Roll Call reported. Perhaps the drafters set out to do what Doggett proposed, then realized that it would be simpler, cheaper, and revenue-positive to eliminate the tax code's recognition of alimony entirely, and seized on the 2014 proposal and arguments. It's probably the pet project of one Ways & Means member or staffer who's been there since Camp was Chair.
But where are the deeper, more extensive arguments that ordinarily would lead to something like this? To find out I traced backwards from the only article I found in favor of the change, "A Human Capital Theory of Alimony and Tax", by feminist law professor Tessa Davis in the George Mason Law Review. The only part of it I've thoroughly read is its abstract, every word of which is totally wrong, except for the stuff about "Family Law Theory", the entire posited existence of which is not only wrong, but should not be conceiveable in a rational world where people care about the real-life effects of anything. Even to utter its name, silently to oneself, throws down a gauntlet and crosses a Rubicon into a world where mere Families and Laws will henceforth be trivial playthings in the tiny hands of academic Theories and their adepts and familiars.
And yet I cannot help but admire Davis for having the monumental audacity to claim to speak for "a scholarly consensus" in favor of some kind of fundamental change. She cites only two previous proposals for tax law to disregard alimony: Rep. Camp's 2014 bill, and Donald H. Berman, "The Alimony Deduction: Time to Slaughter the Sacred Cow," 4 Am. J. of Tax Pol’y 49 (1985). Berman called the exclusion "inequitable, complex and arbitrary", and above all, unnecessary now that marginal tax rates had declined from a healthy, vigorous 91% to a negligible 50%. More of the history of dissent from the current regime can be learned from another, very solid, article Davis cites, Deborah Geier, "Simplifying and Rationalizing the Federal Income Tax Law Applicable to Transfers in Divorce," 55 TAX LAWYER 363 (2001). It recounts that in the mid-1980s, Senate Finance Committee staffers proposed totally eliminating the alimony exclusion. They tried to rally women's groups to their side. The ultimate results they got, and possibly what they were aiming for all along, were incremental restrictions that may have helped increase revenue and predictability. (Id., pp. 404-406.) The article advocates letting couples choose who'll pay the taxes on any forms of support or property transfers, with a default rule that the recipient has to pay them. It cites a very similar proposal, Laurie L. Malman, "Unfinished Reform: The Tax Consequences of Divorce," 61 N.Y.U. L. REV. 363, 367 (1986).
Davis's own argument is that alimony in a divorce is mostly viewed as compensation for "human capital," or return on investment or compensation for loss, none of which are taxed, and that any distinction between it and property transfers is artificial. (See pp. 50-55 of her article, downloadable from the abstract web page.) (Malman made similar arguments for her free-choice proposal.)
But the problem is, normal alimony, the kind that qualifies for the tax exclusion, almost always comes directly from someone's income -- where, unlike property, it get taxed if the Code doesn't exclude it -- and goes to provide income for someone else. The IRS has established clear, easily-followed boundaries between regular alimony and non-qualifying lump-sums that are more like property division. And in real alimony negotiations and trials, alimony is almost totally based on income -- needs and ability to pay. Yes, decisions are sometimes influenced by arguments about spouses' contributions to the marriage, but when statutes, judges and litigants look at women having sacrificed their own careers for the sake of a husband's career or to raise children, their point is that the women have a legitimate reason for needing supplemental income, and that it may take time for them to wholly or partly "rehabilitate" their earning potential.
Once again, this time on the left, the theorists are looking at the subtler reasons for alimony and missing what it obviously IS and what it's almost always FOR in real life.
* "Supposably" is a real word. It's from Seinfeld.
"Diane married James against [her] guardian’s wishes and [the guardian] wanted to get the marriage annulled. Kaine represented Diane in a lawsuit to preserve her marriage. He fought the guardian and won, learning that the guardian wanted Diane’s disability checks.
“'What started off as a marriage case in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court ended up as a criminal trial against the guardian in federal court,' he said.
"Kaine said, 'I learned a lot from Diane.' including the responsibility of law practice and that what a lawyer does really matters.
“'And I also learned a critical lesson that served me well throughout my career— whatever the issue seems to be at first, look deeper. The marriage lawsuit, ostensibly filed to protect a mentally disabled person, was really the guardian’s effort to continue the subjugation of Diane and the theft of her disability payments,' he said.
The article, about Kaine's talk at William & Mary's law school graduation, also includes some vital advice for lawyers and pretty much everyone else:
At one point Kaine said he sat at his computer with a mental block. Then he recalled a line from Second Corinthians, “in my weakness is my strength.” He said he understood then that “you can’t flee from your weaknesses but have to embrace and own them as a natural part of being human. I was afraid. But somehow, just admitting that to myself helped me jump back into the work and crank out all the pleadings and advocate at all the hearings right up to the last day.”
Kaine said, “This is a lesson that I come back to again and again in my life. Fleeing from your weaknesses or pretending that you don’t have them makes you weak. But acknowledging your weaknesses, which can be very hard to do, in one of life’s great mysteries, can make you strong.”
He closed his remarks with a promise to the new grads: “My clients taught me lessons that I still reflect on today, long after I gave up law practice because of the demands of full time public service. They changed me as a lawyer and they changed me as a person. And they will change you too,” he said.