Sunday, September 4, 2011

“Alimony, Is It Really a Racket?" - 1954


FULL TEXT: “My Wife Finally decided to leave me,” says Joe Barry, a New York maintenance man, “when she told me she wanted a mink coat and I said the best I could afford was Persian lamb.” As far as Mrs. Barry (her name, like all others in cases cited in this article, has been changed, but the incidents are true) was concerned, that was the last straw in their 14-month-old marriage. She went to court and asked for an annulment—plus $15,000 to soothe her wounded feelings. And she carried away all the furnishings in their home. When the case came to court, the judge lectured her sternly.

“He bawled her out proper,” Joe says. “But in the end he decided she ought to get $ 18 out of my $68 a week. She’s healthy and she’s able to work, but the law says a husband must provide for his wife, so why should she? She’s just going to sit back and live off my income. I’d like to gel a divorce, but I’ve spent all my money on her, and on lawyers and court fees. I’d say my marriage cost me $10,000.”

Joe Barry is one of the substantial body of American husbands who have been picked clean by what they call the “alimony racket.” Surprisingly, most of them don’t fit into the category of wealthy playboys being fleeced by predatory blondes, nor do their cases rate headlines like those of a Billy Rose or a Winthrop Rockefeller. The husbands who suffer most are those who, with only average incomes, still must shell out one-third to one-half to their wives.

~ She Gets More Than He Does ~

WHAT REALLY burns me up,” says John Campbell, a Chicago laborer, “is that my ex-wife is working and making a good salary. Still she gets $15 a week alimony – more than I have to live on. What kind of justice is that?” “My wife was running around with another man,” adds Tom Raymond, a New York commercial artist. “I forbade it, so she went to court for a separation. Now I have to pay her attorney’s fees plus one-third of my salary.”

Basically, the “racket” works just that way: a greedy, scheming wife invests a few months in a marriage and then goes to court and claims a share of her husband’s income as her “legal right.” And she gets it; neither husband nor court has the power to stop her. If children are involved, the husband likewise is required to pay for their support. (Legally, alimony is awarded to the wife for her own maintenance, support for the children’s; in practice, the two quite often blend together.) But the alimony racket is not the disease; it is only a symptom. The same fertile soil which allows it to bloom also nourishes the runaway husband, the cheapskate who begrudges his family every nickel of support, and the emotional brawls over child custody.

These cases appear at least as often as, and probably more often than, the “alimony racket” squabbles.

What they all point up is the fact that, in most of the U. S., courts insist on using an oxcart philosophy to deal with a 20th Century problem: the broken home. In few states, e.g. Michigan and Ohio, have courts realized that the shattered family is not a legal problem, to be tussled over like a bankruptcy case, but a sociological one. The laws governing alimony date back to the last century and many further than that. There is no recognition that lives are involved.

Not only are lives involved. Often they are young lives. Many a wife with an eye on wringing every nickel out of her husband has no qualms at using the children as weapons. “My little girl said to me on my last visit, ‘I never see you give Mommy any money,’” says Jack Byron, a salesman. “‘You don’t help her. Don’t you care about us?’”
~ How Children Are Affected ~

“IT’S BAD enough to have to pay that woman more money than I can afford. She always gets it, by mail, right on the nose. But I don’t think it’s fair for her to poison my daughter’s mind against me.”

Another father says tearfully that, after he complained his alimony payments were too high, his son told him on his next visit, “I hate you, Daddy! Go away from here! I never want to see you any more!”

One other weapon the wife can, and docs, use: the Alimony Jail. Under the law, failure to meet alimony payments is contempt of court, punishable in some states by up to a year in jail. Although a jail term doesn’t solve the problem of payment (husbands, of course, can’t pay while behind bars), many wives don’t care.

“I don’t want the money. I just want him to rot in jail for what he did to me,” one woman told her attorney.

Often jail is used as a sort of blackmail. “You have rich relatives. Go borrow from them,” one inmate of Alimony Jail was told. Another reports, “I was told I could get out of jail any time I wanted if I would agree to a divorce on grounds of adultery, and also agree not to see my children for three years. If  I’d ‘co-operate,’ she said, she’d be ‘generous’ and I wouldn’t have to pay alimony for that three-year period. But if I wanted to see my children after the three years were up, I’d have to agree to pay all back alimony and legal fees.”

All this is not to say that the wife is always in the wrong in alimony and support cases. Far from it. Even Alimony, Inc. – an organization, with headquarters in New York, of men who think they have been fleeced by the racket – admits that in many cases the husband is a drunkard, wife-beater or outright deadbeat who will skip out rather than pay as little as $5 a week. In many more, the woman accepts a ridiculously low amount – or refuses to ask anything at all – just to be rid of the man.

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What’s Wrong With Our Alimony Courts

1 Awards are set by “hit or miss” methods.

2 Husbands who have no attorneys are likely to wind up in jail, or at least pay exorbitant amount.

3 Strained emotion makes a sound decision impossible.

4 Judicial administration is generally poor.

5 Procedures are cumbersome, with the case returning to the court repeatedly for one reason or another.

6 Courts fail to protect the children in most cases.

(From a report on alimony courts by Waller Gellhorn, professor of low at Columbia University.)

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But the fact remains that, too often, the husband is trapped by laws that are outmoded, court procedures that are unrealistic and women-and lawyers – who are shrewd enough, greedy enough or vindictive enough to capitalize on them.

Where has alimony – an admirable enough concept, recognizing that a man cannot simply wave aside his responsibilities – gone astray? One answer is provided by Domestic Relations Court Judge Paul W. Alexander of Toledo, O., one of a very few judges who takes a realistic view of alimony.

“There are several mistaken ideas about alimony,” Judge Alexander says. “First of all, alimony is not a reward for virtue. You don’t say to a wife, ‘Your husband ran around with other women, but you’ve been a good girl, so I’ll give you $10,000.’ Nor is alimony like damages. If one man beats his wife six time a week and another man beats his wife three times a week, that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – mean one wife will get $6,000 and the other $3,000. The trouble is that in many stales lawyers, and even judges, play on these angles. And then alimony becomes a racket. “What alimony actually means is nourishment, or maintenance,” Judge Alexander continues. “But until all courts, and all attorneys, realize that the only questions involved are ‘How much does she need? – How much can he pay?’ there are going to be abuses.”

One other point Judge Alexander might have mentioned –  the crowded court calendar. With practically every court jammed full of cases, judges have little time to spend investigating or considering individual complaints. All they can do is listen to a few minutes of testimony from each side, attempt to strike a balance and hand down an order. Mrs. Maxine B. Virtue, director of state activities of the Judicial Administration
Section of the American Bar Association, put it graphically in a searching report on marriage and divorce procedures:

“The court, prodded by a waiting mountain of work, takes the cleaver handed to him by the wife’s attorney and begins to cleave. It is often a painful and bloody business, ... It is most painful when the meat-axe falls – as it often does – upon the children.”

Often, the result is awards far out of line with the basic questions of need and ability to pay. In addition, the judge often is compelled to string along with the figure set in temporary alimony proceedings – a figure based not on evidence, but on statements. He has no time to decide whether this amount is too steep for the wage-earner.

Or, one lawyer suggests, “The wife says her husband makes $10,000 and the husband says he makes $4,000. So the judge figures, ‘Well, heck, he must make $6,000,’ and he bases alimony on that figure. He doesn’t spend time trying to find out which one is right. And there’s no consistency in awards; the cases are disposed of almost casually.”

~ A Sideshow Atmosphere ~

SINCE MOST STATES insist on handling alimony like all other matters dealing with separation and divorce – as a battle between husband and wife, the question of “How much?” often is decided in a sideshow atmosphere, with lawyers for each side exaggerating testimony and trying to outshout the other. Indeed, courts in some states have refused to admit evidence of income or need gathered by an unbiased tact-finding agency; they have insisted all such evidence must be presented “in open court” by the opposing sides.

The result is that emotion replaces deliberate, cooperative planning. And many marriages that might yet be salvaged collapse completely because the very frictions that caused them to topple are now blown all out of proportion. This is a failing throughout all alimony cases: few courts go back to the beginning and try to make the marriage work. They simply haven’t time.

Yet reconciliation is obviously the only possible solution in many cases. As one authority puts it, “While two cannot live as cheaply as one, it is perfectly clear that two can live more cheaply in one Household than in two. . . . There can be no wholly satisfactory solution for the problem of dividing up inadequate funds.” Alimony, Inc., blames “unscrupulous lawyers” for keeping the struggle alive, in order to claim fees, instead of trying to bring the parties together again—either to reconcile or to work out a fair division of money.

In fact, the alimony-payers would like to see lawyers ruled out of alimony cases completely. Too often, the group claims, the amount a husband must pay is determined not by his income but by how shrewd a lawyer his wife has.

“Knowing that some judges base alimony on how much the wife has suffered,” an Alimony, Inc., spokesman says, “some attorneys will coach a woman to tell all sorts of lies that will completely blacken his character but get a high award for her, and a fat fee for him.

“The man is completely ruined. Unless he’s Tommy Manville, he can’t remarry. The burden is too much.” But one “divorce lawyer” points out: “A lawyer doesn’t really do his client any good getting an award too steep for the husband to pay. An onerous award makes the man decide to skip out, or go into debt. Or he goes to jail and the wife gets nothing.”

Most of the claims of Alimony, Inc., hold good anywhere in the country. Mrs. Virtue investigated California. Chicago, Milwaukee and Indianapolis, and found them all lacking an up-to-date system for handling family cases. San Francisco was given an “A” for effort. There Mrs. Virtue found the beginnings of a “therapeutic” approach; the court had a small staff of a few domestic-relations investigators. But still the court was bogged down in too many budgetary and financial details, and had little time for anything else. She reported “a sense of futility” in trying to modernize Chicago’s archaic  set-up, and quoted one judge after a recent streamlining attempt had been rejected as unconstitutional:

“As a result . . . the shabby show must go on under our Divorce Act of 1874, which is patched, depreciated and outmoded by the years, and hopelessly inadequate to cope with the impact of the many problems of a modern society.” Another judge remarked of Chicago’s divorce, alimony and child custody work: “No procedure, no statistics, no machinery, no supervision.” Mrs. Virtue concluded that she knew of no worse family court machinery in the country.

~ Clerks Take Testimony ~

INDIANAPOLIS RATED a good grade for its “60-day cooling-off period,” but
a bad one for its practice of “special or interim” judges to hear testimony. Once, Mrs. Virtue found, a clerk of courts even heard testimony!

Milwaukee, which gave up its Domestic Relations Court, still has a Department of Domestic Conciliation, but case workers concentrate mostly on child-custody details.

“There is something very wrong with the handling of these cases,” Mrs. Virtue concluded her report. A lot of alimony-paying husbands would agree with her. And so, beyond question, would a lot of deserted wives.

NEXT WEEK: PARADE studies Michigan and Ohio, two states that have recognized alimony as a modern problem demanding modern treatment.

[Ross, Sid & Ed Kiester, “Alimony, Is It Really a Racket ? Greedy Wives Grab, Runaway Husbands Dodge. This Two-Part Article Reports On A National Evil,” (Part 1 of 2), Parade Magazine (syndicated Sunday newspaper insert), Jul. 18, 1954, p. 6]

*** PART 2 ***


EDITOR’S NOTE: Lost week PARADE reported on a virtually nationwide disgrace, the alimony “racket” – a product of horse-and-buggy laws applied to a pressing modern problem. By contrast, here is how two states have applied 20th Century sociological thinking to alimony

DEAR SIRS: My situation is this: For the past three years I have been receiving alimony. I have totally received my husband’s two automobiles, his possessions from our home and a block of railroad stock. Now the law says I cannot receive any more than 10 per cent of his salary. Please help and advise me.”

“Sirs: It is you bums, men who desert four wives and children to try to get out of your money obligations, who deserve jail. You are criminals and family deserters and we are all for alimony and more yet. You get away with murder. You should stay in jail for the rest of your lives and pay all the money you possess.”

Neither of these letters is a gag. Both are culled from the files of Alimony, Inc.* [*11 Broadway, New York 4, NY] an organization of husbands who think their pockets have been picked by what they call “the alimony racket.” The letters point out that alimony is by no means a one-way street; the husband gets it in the neck as often as the wife does.

And the postmarks show that the battling over money is not confined to the well-known arenas like New York and Hollywood, where the financial troubles of the Billy Roses, Jackie Gleasons and John Waynes are placed on public view. The same fights are being carried on, for lower stakes, throughout the U. S.

Yet there is a decent way to handle all this. The state of Michigan and eight cities in Ohio have come to grips with alimony as a social question, part of the pressing 20th Century problem of the broken home. They recognize that it requires sound, sober judgment, not a street-corner brawl between husband and wife. As a result, They have scrapped the horse-and buggy laws that govern such cases in most other areas. Both try to treat the broken home as a problem calling for reasonable planning, not emotional outbursts and revenge.

“It is a precise, impartial process that we go through,” says Judge Ira J. Jayne, of Detroit’s Wayne County Third Circuit Court. “We get it from both sides. The men claim we favor-women, and the women claim we favor men. But we try to call ‘em as we see ‘em.”

The impartial umpire of which Judge Jayne speaks is the unique friend of the Court system, which he pioneered in Wayne County in 1918 and which now has been expanded to all counties in Michigan. The Friend, an attorney trained in social service work and appointed by the Governor, heads an office which handles all divorce cases from first to last. The agency digs deep into such questions as income and need, and hands down recommendation to the Circuit Court. Its complete objectivity, thoroughness and dispatch have won friends among social scientists, judges, lawyers—and husbands and wives.

~ The Ohio Approach ~

EIGHT CITIES IN Ohio have taken a different tack — a Domestic Relations Court which serves as both family and juvenile court. Many other cities have Family Courts: Milwaukee had one tor a time and abolished it, apparently because of the expense: New York still operates one. But in Ohio the court gets complete sway in alimony matters. In most other courts, jurisdiction is bobtailed and judges are hamstrung.

Both Toledo and Detroit - the two courts visited by PARADE—have recognized the loophole in law that has allowed alimony to degenerate into a racket: in the 20th Century, a young, childless wife can earn a living as easily as her husband. Forcing him to pay alimony may well be an injustice. “I’ve often heard a judge tell a woman, “You’re young and healthy-go get a job,” says Harold O. Erickson. Chief assistant to Detroit’s Friend of the Court, Hazen O. Kunz.

“It is our opinion that alimony prevents remarriage by both parties.” he adds. “Our courts don’t award it as a penalty, only for actual need. A woman must he, for some reason, unemployable.”

~ Let the Lady Work ~

JUDGE PAUL W. ALEXANDER of Toledo’s Domestic Relations Court says. “I think that our courts generally abhor the spectacle of a young, able-bodied woman sitting back and getting fat living off a man. She should become self-supporting if she’s young enough. It’s disgraceful for her to live in idleness. Maybe she’s got a good claim on her husband but that’s beside the point.”

Nor does either court wield the jail weapon the way it is used elsewhere. (In many states, husbands can be slapped in jail for up to a year for failing to keep up alimony payments. This treatment is one of the prime targets of Alimony, Inc.) “Unless a man has willfully  dodged paying he won’t go to jail,” says Judge Alexander. “If our investigators find he’s ill or unemployed, or disabled, he won’t go to jail. in no case will he be sent simply because his wife is vindictive.”

And even if a husband does draw a term in Judge Alexander’s court, it is not likely lo be more than 10 days. The judge feels this is “more than adequate.” Before Judge Jayne, sentences may be as high as six months-hut not very often. On “Motion Day” for Friend of Court cases, the willful offenders are called before the judge first. He usually packs the first one off to the House of Correction. “I find it has a salutary effect on the others,” he says with a smile.

Even in the House of Correction, a man’s wages are applied to his alimony or support payments. Often, this convinces a dodging husband that he might as well pay up on the outside.

Almost all the complaints registered by Alimony, Inc., and the other self-styled “victims of the alimony racket” are answered by the Friend of the Court or Toledo’s corresponding setup. Take a few at random:

“Sooner or later, I’m bound to land in Alimony Jail,” says a Long Island butcher’s helper. “In my book, I’m being done an injustice. The court only leaves me $13 a week out of my $50 to live on.” In Wayne County, no such unequal balance could have been struck, with the Friend of the Court to delve into all details of earnings and needs.


~ ‘An Income Like Croesus’ ~

MY WIFE’S attorney,” a Chicago man complains, “made me sound like a combination of Dracula, Frankenstein and Jack the Ripper, with an income like Croesus to boot.” In Judge Alexander’s court, wife-beating wouldn’t have been an issue in setting the alimony award. Under the Friend of the Court, the exact amount of income, down to the penny, would have been established.

And the attorney wouldn’t even have figured in the case until the recommendation had been drawn up. “I think my marriage might have been saved,” a New Yorker says, “until the attorneys got hold of it and started making up a lot of fancy charges” In Toledo, the aid of the Domestic Relations Court’s line Marriage Counseling Service might, indeed, have kept this marriage from disaster. The friend of the Court handles a case his way:

As soon as a divorce action is filed, both parties are invited to come to the Friend’s office. There is no official summons. “But if a man doesn’t appear, we may grant his wife’s temporary alimony petition without further ado,” Erickson says. “Or if she doesn’t show up, she may find her claim dead-ended.”

Most couples are belligerent when they first appear. “Listen, lady, I didn’t marry the guy—you did,” a Friend investigator is apt to say to a steaming-mad wife. The first job is to cool the parties down. Then the investigator interviews each, trying to learn the exact amount of income and the exact extent of need.

“Many people feel that this is their first opportunity to tell their side,” says Clayton A. Christenson. one of 22 Friend investigators. “All statements are under oath, so people hesitate to tell anything but the truth. We verily earnings through employer’s statements and tax returns, expenses through receipts and bills.”

On the basis of this information, the investigator draws up a recommendation. Often, it will deal with such matters as the custody of minor children as well as alimony. Then the parties are called in again and given the details before the case actually pops up in court. About 80 per cent of their recommendations are approved by both parties, and by the court, unchanged.

Voluntary agreements between the parties also are examined by the Friend. “Often,” says Erickson, “the woman will agree to a ridiculously low figure just to be rid of the man. Many times we won’t agree to it, especially if there is a child involved.”

~ The Masculine Ego ~

IN Toledo, Judge Alexander reports, investigators find the reverse often is true: “masculine ego” causes a man to volunteer far higher amounts than he can afford. Investigators usually talk him out of the notion.

Meantime, the award decided, the Friend keeps an eye on the case. The office collects and distributes all alimony payments, handling about $12 million a year. Checks are to be made on each account every month: because of a personnel shortage, however, most are checked only every six months. The Friend usually allows $50 leeway before cracking down.

Or a woman may complain that the payments are lagging behind; the Friend investigates and files a complaint if the charges stand up. Likewise all requests for modifications or gripes (“My wife won’t let me see my kids”) are channeled through the Friend.

Michigan and Ohio leach a lesson to other stales in how alimony should be  handled. A brief review shows how “the alimony racket” and other evils vanish when the sociological approach supplants the legal tug-of-war.

~ The Bad – and the Good ~

CROWDED COURT calendars result in unjust “snap” decisions. When an impartial  agency makes n full investigating mill recommendation, the judge can decide the case on its merits.

Alimony often is awarded for damages, or as a “reward,” or as punishment. Courts and their agencies must confine themselves to two questions: income and need.

Jail and child custody often are used as blackmail to obtain a higher award. There can be no blackmail when all facts are on the table before an impartial investigator.

“Divorce lawyers” often fake charges to gain a higher award. Lawyers should not he involved in questioning by the agency until the final “day in court.”

Young, healthy wives receive alimony although able to work. Modern courts “generally abhor the spectacle of a young able-bodied woman sitting back and living off a man.”

No attempt is made to save marriages when reconciliation is obviously the only solution. A Marriage Counseling Service should he a vital part of any court dealing with family problems.

States with oxcart alimony laws would do well to study the example of Michigan and Ohio. Therein lies the answer to a national evil – and justice for thousands of husbands, wives and children.

[Ross, Sid & Ed Kiester, “A Common-Sense Approach to the Alimony Problem: The Experience Of Two States, Michigan And Ohio, Shows How To Clean Up A National Evil,” (Part 2 of 2), Parade Magazine (syndicated Sunday newspaper insert), Jul. 25, 1954]

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For more revelations of this suppressed history, see The Alimony Racket: Checklist of Posts

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