In the past, female spouses almost always earned less than their husbands. Today, that is changing. A Harris Poll recently revealed that half of the women surveyed earn as much or more than their partner. This is excellent news for gender equality, but bad news when it comes to divorce.
High-Earning Women and Divorce
A University of Chicago study showed that women who earn more than their spouse are 50 percent more likely to see their marriages end in divorce.
The Chicago study identified a variety of reasons these marriages are more likely to end in divorce, including:
- Increased tension in the marriage
- Societal expectations
- Gender role disagreements
Another study showed that when women are promoted to top jobs such as CEO, their rate of divorce increases. Clearly, financial and career success for women makes a marriage more likely to end.
The tension in income-diverse marriages may also be related to something the American Time Use Survey showed: women spend more time on childcare and home management activities than their spouses. The traditional gender roles in American society cast men as primary breadwinners while women have more responsibility at home.
When women earn more, but there is no corresponding flip in the way household and childcare responsibilities are shared, it likely leads to difficulties in the relationship. In fact, another study in the Journal of Family Issues found that the greater the disparity in income between husband and wife (with the husband earning less), the more likely it is that the husband will do even less housework than their wives.
Cheating and Spousal Incomes
The stereotype of extramarital affairs is that a high-earning husband is more likely to cheat. One might think that would flip when the woman earns more. In fact, when women earn more than their husbands, the husbands are more likely to cheat. A study in the American Sociological Review recently showed that, when men are financially dependent on their wives (with the women earning all of the household income), the men are three times more likely to cheat in the marriage.
Impact of a Wife’s Income on Maintenance
When a couple with a large income disparity divorces, there is likely to be an award of spousal maintenance (also called spousal support or maintenance) to allow the non-moneyed spouse the financial resources to become self-supporting. In New York, maintenance is generally set according to a formula, but that formula is only used for annual income up to $184,000.
For a high-earning couple, the court will consider a wide variety of factors, including:
- The parties’ ages and health
- Each spouse’s earning capacity
- Length of the marriage
- How the marital property is divided
- Whether they have children together and where the children live
- Training or education needed for one spouse to become self-supporting
- Wasteful dissipation of marital assets by either spouse
- Acts by one spouse that have inhibited the other’s earning ability
- How each has contributed to the other’s education or earning capacity
- Health insurance
It is likely that a higher-earning female spouse will pay spousal support to their lower-earning spouse. An attorney experienced in representing highly-paid women will present a detailed case to the court for why there should be no maintenance or why maintenance should be set at a low amount, including evidence about the non-moneyed spouse failing to find work on par with their skill and experience.
Equitable Distribution and High-Earning Women
Divorce also includes distribution of marital assets through equitable distribution, a process that allocates property in a way that is fair but not necessarily equal.
This process accounts for factors such as:
- The income and property of both spouses
- Length of the marriage
- Age and health of the spouses
- Loss of inheritance and retirement rights due to the divorce
- Spousal maintenance
- Loss of health insurance because of the divorce
- Future financial health of both spouses
- Tax consequences to each party
If you are a high-earning female spouse, it is likely that you have contributed more time and effort to childcare and housework than your spouse, based on the studies cited above. This is a factor a skilled attorney will present to the court as part of the argument that you are entitled to a larger portion of the marital assets. If a woman contributed more of her time and energy at home than her spouse, in addition to earning more and financially supporting the household, there is a persuasive argument that she is entitled to a larger portion of the marital assets in the equitable distribution process.
Obtaining career success and a robust income in a male-dominated world need not spell disaster in a divorce for an accomplished female. Experienced legal counsel can present a detailed case for why your hard work and tireless efforts at home entitle you to a fair share of marital assets.