Apparently, even though the courts are onto this, marital lawyers say plenty of soon-to-be ex-spouses try to end-run the alimony systems by quitting their jobs.
“I would say it is not uncommon. People often feel very resentful when they are ordered to pay alimony and think that by doing this they are saving themselves money,” said Brette McWhorter Sember
, 39, in an e-mail interview. The former lawyer based in Clarence, N.Y., is the author of several books including "How to Parent with Your Ex"
“In my experience judges are very cranky with people who don't pay alimony or child support. They understand that you can be temporarily out of work, but do not accept the excuse that you can't find anything, even a job washing dishes,” she said. Belinda Rachman
agrees, adding that even if you are out of work, you might still be forced to pay. “If somebody has a job and they take themselves out of the financial game, the court does not look kindly on that. You want to play games with the court?” said Rachman, a 52-year-old Carlsbad, Calif.-based lawyer specializing in divorce mediation.
“You think it will lower significantly the amount of money that would be paid, but the judge can set it not at what you are making but what you are capable of making.” And people can find all kinds of ways to end their employment, such as faking a injury, creating a bogus excuses why they can’t work and even quitting outright. “And people can create situations so they are fired,” Sember added.
But if you suspect that the spouse you are divorcing might be pulling a fast one, there are some things you can do. But it all comes down to proving it. “If you have a suspicion that someone is malingering, which is what it is called, or faking an injury, or someone is pretending to be sick so they don’t work, you have to prove it,” Rachman said. “You can ask for an independent evaluation, but I caution you, pain sometimes cannot be proven. It’s really hard to prove pain, and when it comes right down to it, it’s always about what can you prove.”
“You can call in a third party to ask for evaluation, someone qualified who can come in and do a physical or mental, evaluation, or both,” said Lynne Gold-Bikin, 65, family law chair at WolfBlock
LLP in Morristown, Penn. “There are people who claim they can’t work because drug or alcohol addicted. There are things you casn do about that, such as go to AA, go into rehab. Just because you have a physical injury, does that disable you from do all kinds of work? You might not be able to do construction work, but can you still talk on the phone?”
Dealing with issues of support is one area that all litigators are frustrated about, since it usually is the arena where the most games are played. “This is the most frustrating part of being a lawyer being involved in the court system. It is not about truth or justice, it’s all about what you can prove according to rules of evidence,” Rachman added. “Unfortunately, I saw way too many cases, under penalty of perjury, where people lie about their assets and what they earn.”
Rachman is not alone. “I have a client who’s exhusband has been cheating on his taxes for years. We have all the documentation to prove this. But when it comes to paying support to her, he said he would rather go to IRS and tell them everything then pay her,” Gold-Bilkin. “There are men who will do this. They are angry and their opinion is ‘that bitch isn’t going to get anything.’”
“I have seen horrible injustices within our court system which is why I walked away,” Rachman said, adding that she is now a mediator, working to resolve post-marital disputes between the two parties so the courts don’t have to be directly involved.
The other problem that adds to the frustration is that even though support can be put in place there is no real recourse for not paying alimony, according to Rachman. “They can still order support from somebody that hasn’t the ability to pay it. The court can serve an order on your employer to garnish wages if need be,” Rachman said. “But if you don’t pay, it’s not like they throw you in jail. They can take your driver’s license away and attach your tax returns.”
“But the judges aren’t stupid. There was a famous case in Pennsylvania, where the husband said, ‘I don’t have the capacity to pay. I don’t have anything. You can’t put me in jail for that.’ but what the judge did was order him to go out and find all the job opportunities he could find. ‘You’ve got three weeks.’ If he didn’t do it, then he can be put in jail for violating a court order,” added Gold Bikin.Lenore Skomal is author of seventeen books, including Bluff, Third Willow, and Heroes: 50 Stories of the American Spirit. She is a columnist of an award-winning weekly column in the Erie, Pa., Times-News, she also teaches college journalism in Pennsylvania.