The traditional legal standard governing the amount of alimony was that which would allow the wife to live in the style to which she had become accustomed during the marriage.
The requirement that a husband support his wife after dissolution of their marriage was a long-standing tradition in the U.S. The financial support rules adopted by the American states were originally created by ecclesiastical courts in England for a society that recognized only judicially approved separation, but not divorce. Under these circumstances, permanent support for the dependent spouse made sense—especially in a traditional society in which the husband earned the income and owned all family wealth and the wife was responsible for maintaining the home and rearing the children.
Today most states recognize that marriage is essentially an economic partnership of the spouses. Divorce doctrines, therefore, often rely on civil-law community-property jurisdiction; they authorize the court to award to each spouse, in some equitable fashion, property acquired during the marriage regardless of formal ownership.
In the last part of the 20th century, the increasing divorce rate, the greater participation of women in the labor market, and feminist ideology all contributed to the need for reform of the alimony-award system. Most divorce reform statutes of the 1970s included a variety of modifications of alimony awards, which take account of changes in American culture and in marriage as an institution. The term alimony has often been changed to maintenance in an effort to minimize both the connotation the older term conveyed of female dependence and the resentment many husbands had of continuing support obligations. In most statutes alimony became payable to either spouse; judges were instructed to base awards strictly on the economic needs of the dependent spouse. The reform statutes preferred a short-term support award, called rehabilitative alimony, for younger spouses to finance continued or renewed education to enable them to join the workforce and become self-supporting.
The new maintenance statutes, however, spawned controversy. In a few instances, judges have denied alimony or awarded quite limited rehabilitative alimony, even to older women whose marriages were of the traditional type and who were not equipped for gainful employment. Another subject of contention during the 1980s was whether, in the absence of marriage, one cohabiting partner could compel the other to pay “alimony” when their relationship dissolved.
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