According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.6 million mothers made the choice to stay home to care for their children rather than enter the workforce in 2007, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available. Some fathers also choose to care for the marital household and children rather than work. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 165,000 men elected this option in 2007. This might work out well for families when parents remain together, but when divorce looms, it raises a big question: Exactly how much is that spouse’s household contribution worth?
Marriage is as much of a binding contract as signing for a loan or entering into any other legal agreement. When a marriage license culminates in tying the knot, it gives both spouses certain legal rights and responsibilities. They each contribute to the marriage, either by earning income or contributing to maintenance of the home and family. Most states construct their divorce and family laws to give equal weight to each.
Labor as Income
If contributions of household labor are equivalent to marital income, the next question becomes how to value household contributions. Most states make reference to this issue in their legislation, and some even set a percentage for valuing labor contributions. For example, Ohio’s code states that both spouses equally contribute to income earned during the marriage, even if one was out in the workforce, earning the income, and the other remained at home taking care of things there, while the other spouse went to work.
In the event of divorce, most states consider household labor when dividing marital property. In community property states, each spouse’s right to half of all property earned and acquired during the marriage is virtually absolute. The only exceptions are assets gained by one spouse through inheritance or as a gift. Incomes earned during the marriage, and anything they purchase, are always community property. Courts in the remaining equitable distribution states don’t have to divide all assets 50/50 in a divorce, but judges will usually come close to these percentages. They won’t cut one spouse out entirely because her contribution to the marriage did not take the form of actual money. In community property states, the law guarantees that a stay-at-home spouse will receive 50 percent of marital property, and in the remaining equitable distribution states, she is entitled to a fair share.
Household labor also affects courts decisions regarding alimony or spousal support. Most state codes contain a reference to household contributions when determining alimony. When a spouse has remained at home for 10 years or more, caring for the family’s home and children, she may not have acquired job skills sufficient to support herself after a divorce. Alimony laws take this into consideration. In long-term marriages, when a divorced spouse is older, courts often order alimony indefinitely because such a spouse probably will not be able to learn the skills necessary to adequately support herself in the lifestyle she enjoyed while married. Most states believe it would be cruel and unfair to expect her to try, and she should not live in poverty just because she contributed labor to the marital home at the cost of learning job skills or advancing in a career.
Most states make a legal distinction between spouses who are voluntarily unemployed or underemployed and those who stay home to care for a family. This distinction may not affect property distribution in community property states, but it is a factor in alimony awards, especially in shorter marriages of less than 10 years' duration. Judges will often impute income to these parents when calculating child support, assigning wages equivalent to what they might be expected to earn if they wanted to work, and may do so when figuring alimony as well.