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The divorce revolution.

The Divorce Revolution. Lenore Weitzman. Free Press. $19.95. The no-fault divorce laws that proliferated in the 1970s were expected to solve many problems. They were supposed to lessen the bitterness that usually arises out of divorce proceedings, erase some of the stigma of being sued successfully for divorce, and eliminate the nasty process of providing grounds for divorce by proving or fabricating proof that the other spouse committed some unwholesome act. Most important, no-fault was supposed to treat men and women as equal partners and, when a marriage failed, allow them to walk away with more or less equal shares of the family wealth.

Lenore Weitzman says no-fault has in some ways performed as advertised but also has had the unforeseen side effect of undercutting its most important goal. Under no-fault laws, divorce settlements have left many women, especially those with children, in much worse financial shape than under previous laws.

Divorce has always been a costly proposition fop husband and wifealike. In the old days, Weitzman says, the wife was typically the "innocent" party and as such was awarded the family house plus other benefits. She did not live as well as she had before the divorce, but neither did her former husband. Now that we have no-fault, divorce remains expensive, but the cost is borne mostly by the wife. After a no-fault divorce, Weitzman says, the wife's standard of living declines an average of 73 percent. Freed from many of the burdens of supporting a family, the former husband gets treated to a 42 percent rise in his standard of living.

How could this have happened? Weitzman says that no-fault's crucial error was to grant women equal rights without equal opportunities. After a no-fault settlement, the woman theoretically receives half the family's material possessions and half the net income for a certain period of time. After that point, each of the former spouses is on his or her own. The assumption is that the former wife and husband have economic parity with one another; usually, though, they don't. The court's division of the spoils takes into account only existing, tangible assets. So the wife with little job experience because of her years raising children may have to start from scratch in the working world while her former husband already has a position, professional experience, benefits, and salary. The economic future suddenly looks better to him; to his ex-wife, it looks much worse.

Weitzman proves her thesis with an array of statistics, case studies, court records, and conversations with lawyers, judges, and divorced men and women that are extremely persuasive. The judges' comments in particular help explain how the seemingly simple and sensible concept of no-fault divorce has become so unfair and confusing in its effects.

For example, the judges use a supply-side rationale to justify imposing an informal 50 percent ceiling on income awards. "You have to have enough money for him to be satisfied, to give him incentive to keep earning and improving in his profession"' said one judge. In practice, judges often are so concerned with the man's economic well-being they allow him two-thirds of his income while his former wife has to live on one-third. They also think awards should be kept low in order to get women off the dole and into the business of providing for themselves.

The author offers a number of suggestions for undoing some of no-fault's damage, In general, they focus on protecting the most vulnerable people, such as women who are divorced after many years as homemakers, mothers of young children, and the children themselves. Weitzman convincingly describes how "rules for divorce are changing the rules for marriage" and affecting family life. First, the ease of undoing marriage leads couples into it with a sense of transience and less commitment. Second-and much worse, because it involves children-no-fault has sent out the message that sacrificing career for family is a sucker's game. The mother who is not prepared to re-enter the work force instantly can be left impoverished. The father who has not sacrificed a thing is suddenly an affluent bachelor, with his practical responsibilities as parent considered "optional."
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Author:Fallows, Deborah
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1986
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