Alimony Laws Confusing for Celebrities – and the Rest of Us

Posted April 19, 2012 in Divorce by Courtney Sherwood

FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2010, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, attend the skills competition at the NBA basketball All-Star Saturday Night in Dallas. Vanessa Bryant filed for divorce from the Lakers star, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, Calif., citing irreconcilable differences as the reason for the split. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

When Kobe and Vanessa Bryant finalize their divorce, some celebrity watchers expect the basketball star’s ex to walk away with $75 million in cash and three mansions to her name.

But if she’d filed for divorce a few months earlier, her potential pay-out could have been considerably less, thanks to California divorce laws that treat marriages lasting 10 years or longer differently than shorter-lived matrimonial alliances. The exact details of any alimony Vanessa Bryant receives will also depend, in part, on which judge she and Kobe are assigned. And if she’d filed for divorce in nearly any other state, how much she might get out of the split would be even harder to predict.

That’s thanks to a confusing patchwork of outdated alimony laws across the U.S. that are in major need of an update, according to an analysis published this month by the American Bar Association.

Alimony’s archaic origins still color how finances are handled in divorces today. In a pre-industrial era when it took two people to run one career – a man who reported to the office each day and a wife who stayed home to run the house, raise the kids and host dinner parties with the boss – alimony was born to protect women who were entirely dependent on their husbands. If Mr. So-and-so ran off with his secretary, he likely left behind a Mrs. So-and-so with no paying work experience and few professionally valuable skills. Alimony payments meant that a husband’s misdeeds did not dash a wife into poverty – and also recognized the contributions that an unpaid partner made to her husband’s career. (If Mrs. So-and-so left because she was sick of her man, not because he did her wrong, she was not entitled to alimony.)

Laura W. Morgan

Today, of course, most wives work, and even mothers who stay home to raise children are typically less dependent on their husbands than a century ago. A growing number of wives are the primary wage earners in heterosexual marriages, and the spread of same-sex marriage has further upended traditional notions about matrimony and divorce – and how financial partnerships should be unraveled.

“The problem with alimony today is that there is no intuitive sense of its purpose in the twenty-first century,” Virginia attorney Laura W. Morgan of Family Law Consulting wrote in her analysis for the American Bar Association.

Couples often end all financial dealings with one another when they divide up their assets, rather than cementing lifelong alimony agreements through the court. If one partner is ordered to pay the other, it’s likely to be in the form of child support, which ends when children grow up or finish college. In most states, alimony payments are for life, but a 2011 Massachusetts reform means in that state they now end when the paying party retires, and Indiana law limits spousal alimony to no more than three years.

And in most of the U.S. there are no guidelines telling judges whether alimony is appropriate – or how much should be awarded, according to Morgan’s review. That means that two nearly identical divorcing couples could get drastically different alimony orders.

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Although California does not have statewide alimony standards, guidelines adopted in Santa Clara in 1977 have since been adopted across much of the state, so if a judge decides how to divide Kobe and Vanessa Bryant’s finances he or she will have guidance from the law.

With most power couples in the era of no fault divorce, of course, a judge is more likely to approve a deal after-the-fact than to decide how to divide the money. The Bryants have reportedly already hashed out a settlement, which they will probably keep private, according to an analysis by Georgia-based family law firm Hill / MacDonald LLC.

That settlement likely includes child support payments and a one-time division of assets. And because Vanessa Bryant waited until after her 10-year anniversary, she’s legally entitled to alimony under California law, according to Hill MacDonald.

Though fewer than 10 percent of divorced people today receive alimony, it’s still a factor in many divorce proceedings – especially if one spouse earned all or nearly all of the couple’s combined income, or if the split is particularly acrimonious. Increasingly, men are receiving alimony from their former partners.

Because divorce and alimony laws are so complex, and vary widely from state to state, there’s no easy way to know what to expect when a marriage ends. A divorce attorney can help you find out if you’ll pay out like Kobe, win concessions like those he’s expected to pay his wife, or avoid alimony all together. 

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