In the last several years, I have noticed a shift in the attitudes of judges and lawyers towards women who have spent a long term marriage working within the home raising a family. In New Jersey, there are thirteen factors which are considered when determining alimony, but our case law provides that two of the more important are lifestyle of the marriage and ability of the receiving spouse to contribute toward her (or his) own needs. This second factor often involves obtaining an employability expert who opines on the issue after administering various objective testing and assessments to determine earning capacity, rather than having any real life information.
Ten years ago, a case in which the wife (or husband) had been home for fifteen years raising the children and caring for the family would have been most often awarded permanent alimony and would not likely have been expected to return to work full time as the lifestyle of the marriage was such that she was a stay at home mom. Lately, however, there appears to have been a significant shift in attitudes, particularly towards women, and in my recent experience, the emphasis has shifted to what the receiving spouse can earn, whether it be immediately, or with training in order to return to the work force with less attention to what the parties did during the long term marriage.
As a society, and for a number of different reasons, we have moved away from a one income household to households in which both spouses are employed. But we still have many couples who, during their marriage made a decision that they wanted a parent home full time to care for the children. Depending on when the divorce occurs, this may result in a situation where the lifestyle has been that a spouse has spent decades out of the workforce. For women, particularly, the realities are such that it is difficult to return after such a long absence, regardless of what skills she may have. In fact, a recent article in the New York Times, as reported by MSNBC, (noted that women who have children still lag behind men and women without children.
Certainly, many, many women with children work full time including family lawyers ( this writer among them), and family court judges. And to some, that may be the new “normal.” But we have an obligation, as we practice, to make sure than in our advocacy as well as in our decision making, that we focus on the lifestyle of the marriage of the case, and not impose our own values on litigants.