At the risk of opening up Pandora’s Box here, let me confess upfront that in my experience, it is incredibly rare to see truly equal partnerships. Most couples do not earn exactly the same, the division of labor at home is rarely equal, and the family resources we have available to us in the future can differ vastly, which may not play a significant factor when everyone continues to co-exist under one roof, but can greatly impact the landscape of what your life will be like post-divorce.
In DC and MD, where I have been practicing family law the last 15 years, we do not have community property, but rather our laws state that in the event of a divorce the court has the authority to distribute the marital assets equitably. What is an equitable distribution? It means the court can assign to each party the assets in whatever manner it deems fair and reasonable after taking into account many factors, including the contributions made by each party during the marriage.
Looking closely at how modern families function, it has become incredibly clear to me that those expecting a 50/50 division of household responsibilities are setting themselves up for a major fail. Instead, you need to be able to realistically discuss a division of chores that is equitable— taking into account the demands of each person’s job and the amount of flexible time s/he has while also recognizing that each individual is entitled to pursue some other interests, like sports or music that do not necessarily involve any other person in the house. If you cannot find a way to balance (1) me time, (2) our time, and (3) work time, you are both setting yourselves up for failure, and when that day comes, I promise you that you will hate having us outsiders analyze exactly how much you each made, spent and contributed to the creation of joint wealth, while dinging each person for any “bad choices” that may have led to the dissolution of your marriage.
In court, we generally tend to reward those that make good choices and punish those that make poor life choices, but when it comes to property division, sometimes I do feel like our tendency to want to simply divide everything 50/50 isn’t really a fair reflection of the time, energy, and money contributed by each party towards the well-being of the partnership. Of course, the question then becomes how much is really at stake and how much are you willing to pay for a legal fight to try and convince a court to deviate from a 50/50 split? Sometimes, it is just easier to divide everything evenly and call it a day, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that freeloaders drive me crazy like nobody’s business. Luckily, this is rarely the case in a long term marriage because let’s face it, who is going to put up with that kind of attitude for years? But at the other extreme, it bothers me immensely to see truly hard working spouses pulling in major bank not get any credit from the other spouse in the end because instead the focus is on their lack of contribution to the division of labor at home or how emotionally unavailable they were while working like a dog. Well, guess what? You cannot have it both ways. Salaries in excess of $100,000 are not handed out like candy, and they rarely require putting in just 40 hours a week. It is very hard to just leave work at 5pm so you can make dinner or attend school plays, and coaching a team or being part of a carpool is going to be very tricky to negotiate with most bosses when you have a high-level job. Let’s give these people some props for what they did right, instead of just focusing on what they failed to do at home, especially if at the end of the day they leave you in a fairly secure financial position, which is an incredible gift that deserves proper recognition and appreciation.
In the end, no court can order an individual to say “thank you” for all the hard work that was done during a marriage, but hopefully you will find it in your own heart someday to appreciate the sacrifices that each person made to create and maintain a family. And if you do want it to last, then I truly hope you do take to heart that equitable doesn’t necessarily mean equal. The key is to figure out what is fair and reasonable, have realistic expectations of each other, and appreciate what you each bring to the table. Is a 50/50 view fair on all fronts? I’m suggesting to you that this is an impossible standard to uphold, but I leave it to you to figure this out for yourself.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.