Alimony: An Anomaly in Family Social Science*

Published date01 October 2002
AuthorErica Owens,Constance L. Shehan,Felix M. Berardo,Donna H. Berardo
Date01 October 2002
308 Family Relations
Special Collection
Alimony: An Anomaly in Family Social Science*
Constance L. Shehan, Felix M. Berardo, Erica Owens, and Donna H. Berardo**
One area of family law that has generated considerable public discourse but has received relatively little attention in the social science
literature is the awarding of alimony. Because of the paucity of research in this area, we are left with little information about the
impact of these support awards and payments on the emotional and economic dynamics between former spouses. In this article, we
outline key issues associated with spousal support and call for research on the implications of this neglected aspect of domestic
Legal scholars have long noted that few aspects of the law,
especially in terms of application, can be neatly catego-
rized as either black or white. Rather, the majority of
laws, based upon judicial precedent and interpretation, tend to
fall into a wide gray area subject to circumstance and changing
social mores. Perhaps this chameleon-like character of our legal
doctrines is most apparent in domestic law, particularly marital
dissolution and spousal-child support. As Foote (1966) noted
decades ago:
There is scarcely any branch of family law that illustrates
more graphically the characteristic gap between the law on
the books and the law in action than the enforcement of
support. Troublesome as are some of the legal doctrines,
they barely give an inkling of the practical diff‌iculties that
lie beneath the surface. (p. 936)
This article focuses on one of the more controversial and
emotional outcomes of marital dissolution, the awarding of ali-
mony. This type of post-divorce reallocation of assets also is
referred to by a variety of other terms, including separate main-
tenance, spousal support, and compensatory payment. Reliable
information on the prevalence of alimony is diff‌icult to obtain.
The most accurate national data come from the U.S. Bureau of
the Census (2000). In relative terms, alimony awards are cur-
rently—and have historically been—rare in the United States.
The proportion of divorces in which it has been awarded has
seldom exceeded 15% (Kelly & Fox, 1993). In absolute terms,
however, alimony awards take on more signif‌icance. Given that
more than one million divorces have occurred in the United
States every year for the past 20 years, the annual number of
marriages affected would reach at least 150,000. When children
as well as their divorced parents are included, the individuals
involved could be several times higher. Because the types of
alimony and the amounts typically awarded vary considerably
from state to state according to existing statutes, local customs,
and extent of migratory divorce, among other factors, estimating
the true incidence and signif‌icance of alimony is extremely dif-
Our purpose is to outline key issues associated with spousal
support and to raise a number of questions with respect to the
social consequences and implications of such awards for fami-
lies. We provide an overview of the historical background and
*An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2000 conference of the Amer-
ican Sociological Association, Washington, D.C.
**Department of Sociology, University of Florida, P. O. Box 117330, Gainesville,FL
32611–7330 (fberardo@soc.uf‌
Key Words: alimony, divorce, family, law, spouse, support.
(Family Relations, 2002, 51, 308–316)
current knowledge concerning alimony. Although noticeable
progress has been made in illuminating the postdivorce transfer
of economic resources, especially with respect to child support,
we still need to reckon with Foote’s (1966) observation that we
lack major scientif‌ic investigations designed to determine the
complexities and social consequences of alimony. For example,
what are the consequences when husbands are jailed for failure
to make court-ordered payments? Do alimony decisions have
different outcomes in community property states?
The vast majority of documented information on this topic
comes from the legal literature. In recent years, there also have
been several Internet sites dealing with this topic that provide
advice and information to the general public. Studies of the con-
sequences of alimony are rare in the social sciences. Indeed, one
could argue that the social science literature in this area is almost
nonexistent (Kelly & Fox, 1993). It is for this reason that we
view alimony as an anomaly in family science.
The paucity of social science research on alimony is sur-
prising, given the potential such awards hold for altering the
interaction and family roles of former spouses. We explore this
topic because it is an important and neglected aspect of the di-
vorce experience (Kelly & Fox, 1993). As money is one of the
major sources of marital conf‌lict, it seems reasonable to believe
that it would continue to function in this way after divorce. Ad-
ditionally, dissatisfaction over economic transactions may con-
tribute to divorced parents’ use of children as a means of bar-
gaining or punishment. Because the potential for continued in-
teraction and conf‌lict after marital termination may increase for
those who have an alimony judgment, it must be considered an
important topic in the f‌ield of family studies. Moreover,the con-
cept of alimony, its meaning, and its justif‌ication have undergone
considerable change over time. The implementation of no-fault
divorce and the changing status of women in society, including
their increased participation in the labor force and their growing
ability to be self-supporting, have had a signif‌icant inf‌luence on
conceptions of alimony (Blau, Ferber, & Winkler, 2002; Weitz-
man & Dixon, 1980).
Although the family science research in this area is scanty,
there is enough in the literature to at least provide some tentative
conclusions. The information at hand can lead to further research
that focuses on the social and psychological consequences of
such compensatory payments. We review current recommenda-
tions for reform, taking into account the realities of contempo-
rary American marriage and family systems, to suggest future
research questions.
Origin of Alimony: Before ‘‘No-Fault’’
The word alimony is derived from the Latin term for nour-
ishment or sustenance, alimentus. The concept of alimony, or the
support of a wife who was living apart from her husband, stems

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT