Institutional sexism is no new concept. One place we might not expect to see it is in the family court system. Unfortunately, it’s prevalent in our courts, even if it’s unintentional and we see it most often negatively impacting men in child custody arrangements and alimony awards.
Historically, family structures were different than they are now—women traditionally stayed at home with children, while men traditionally went to work. It was only natural the family court system developed in a more favorable way towards women when it came to child custody and financial disputes. The system is lagging to catch up to the way family dynamics have changed over the years.
Many states are trying to fix this issue by passing equal parenting time laws and with alimony reform. Florida recently tried to pass, albeit unsuccessfully, a bill that would both reform current child custody laws to a shared parenting plan and nix permanent alimony. At least 20 states in total have considered passing equal parenting time laws, but lawmakers don’t quite seem ready for such a change and we’ve got a long way to go.
Child Custody Rights are Often Biased
Even though fathers’ rights are gradually progressing, there’s still a presumption that mothers are the better caregivers and it’s most often the father that gets gipped out of time with their children. Roughly 83% of mothers receive custody of their children over fathers in a divorce. On top of that, fathers are statistically awarded less child support than mothers in the cases when they do get more custody. Recent studies suggest that unequal parenting time isn’t in the best interest of the child—so it’s not just fathers that are harmed by this bias.
Children living with both parents are statistically less stressed and fare better, emotionally and behaviorally, than those living with primarily one parent. Increased time with each of a child’s parents promotes strong bonds and gives children access to more resources, including social circles, a larger family structure, and, of course, financial and material goods. Opponents of shared parenting plans suggest that shared parenting plans significantly cut down the amount of child support received, but when a child is spending more time with each parent, then the expenses will inevitably be split more evenly.
Men Pay More Alimony
It doesn’t just come in the form of child custody awards either. Roughly 400,00 people in the U.S. receive some form of spousal maintenance, or alimony and only 3% were men. Yet, if you consider 40% of households are headed by female breadwinners, it definitely suggests there’s a problem when men eligible to receive alimony just aren’t getting it.
When it comes to spousal support, the attitude towards men is usually to buck up and get a job and that can sometimes even come from a judge. It’s not unheard of to see cases where the female is a high-earning executive while the male is the stay-at-home father taking care of the kids and, upon divorce, the father only gets a 6-month award of support when, if the situation were reversed, the mother would have easily been awarded years of alimony before being cut off.
On top of the bias towards men receiving support, permanent alimony still exists in at least 7 states throughout the U.S.—New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Florida. That’s permanent alimony, not just an alimony award for an extended period of time! These awards in permanent-alimony states often go on even if the woman remarries. Again, it comes down to traditional gender roles and plain sexism, whether it comes from the courts or the laws in place that the courts are required to follow.
The Court System Isn’t Entirely to Blame
At least 51% of custody arrangements are agreed upon between parents without the aid of the court. But, how much of that agreement comes from the threat of a custody battle in court? Although a good portion of fathers may make the decision on their own, often times a settlement agreement is reached only to avoid a possibly worse custody arrangement that the law give the judge the power to hand down.
Although many men eligible for spousal support turn down the option simply on macho pride and a sense of own financial freedom, consider the father that turns down a possible alimony award he’s entitled to in order to smooth over a custody dispute. That’s not to say it’s their fault either because the bigger issue comes from the actual laws themselves. Even if you have a completely unbiased judge, the judge can only do what the law of their locality allows them to do.
Shouldn’t we be asking a change to come from legislation rather than solely from the court system? These problems aren’t entirely the result of the court system, it’s just a result of how our society has viewed gender roles in the past and those stuck in the biases of that tradition. A change needs to come from legislation first before the court system can completely catch up.
Authored by Ashley Roncevic, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law