Staying home with children: a costly option

Women who stay home to care for children are still not getting their full property entitlement at divorce because neither they – nor their husbands – value the homemaker’s contribution enough, according to new research.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has also found that women in wealthy partnerships receive a smaller relative share of the matrimonial assets than women from couples who are less well off. This is because men and women tend to view a share of the marital home as the woman’s right but see other assets, such as shares or real estate, differently.

“The non-financial contribution made to these assets, particularly the domestic activities performed by one spouse that frees the other spouse to work directly for financial reward, are disregarded when property is divided,” write researchers Grania Sheehan and Jody Hughes in the latest issue of the institute’s magazine, Family Matters.

“The wife’s share of assets is reduced where non-domestic assets, such as investments, businesses and superannuation, comprise a high proportion of the couple’s asset wealth.”

The big exception was marriages in which both partners had shared work and domestic tasks.

“Women who report having taken a traditional role in household management – that is, primary responsibility for the day-to-day care of children and cleaning, while the husband had primary responsibility for household maintenance and paying the bills
– received a share of property well below the mean share for women overall.

“Conversely, women who reported sharing responsibility for all household tasks equally with their former spouse (including paying the bills) received a share of property above the mean share for women overall.”

The report, The Division of Matrimonial Property in Australia, is based on data from the Australian Divorce Transitions Project, a random national telephone survey of 650 divorced people held in late 1997.

The researchers said the future needs of dependent children appeared to have been the most important consideration at the time of settlement “and the financial needs of the former spouse may have been overlooked”. But men and women regarded such settlements as fair.

The assumption that the domestic sphere is where women’s entitlements lie produced this paradox: “The greater the percentage of asset wealth accounted for by domestic assets such as the family home and furnishings, the fairer men reported the settlement to be, even though the more domestic assets were in the pool, the more the wife received.”

Researchers found criticisms by men’s groups that women were unduly favored in settlements were not supported. The share received shifted in favor of the resident parent regardless of whether that parent was the mother or the father.

For men and women, being happy with the property settlement was strongly linked to being happy with the children’s arrangements. Men who reported the child support arrangements and property settlements as fair also tended to be men who had frequent contact with their children.

Arrangements with the other spouse were governed by the view that there should be a “clean break”, with no ongoing responsibility for each other’s welfare. Spousal maintenance was rare, minimal and brief, usually paid as bridging finance until property matters were finalised.

Women who had spent more than a third of the marriage out of paid work – those most in need of spousal maintenance – were the group least likely to support the idea. “This suggests that women, particularly those from more traditional marriages, may underestimate their entitlement to matrimonial property based on their own financial need (independently of the needs of the children),” the report said.

Another study based on the same telephone survey, Financial Living Standards after Divorce, found that women are still more likely than men to experience economic hardship but that single fathers are emerging as the most disadvantaged group of divorced men.

Researchers Ruth Weston and Bruce Smyth found that up to 65 per cent of older divorced women had low incomes, as did 44 per cent of younger sole mothers. “Like the patterns for women, the most disadvantaged men were those living alone (both older and younger groups) or as sole fathers (all of whom were in the younger group).

“The most advantaged group appeared to be those living with a partner and no children, all of whom were male respondents from the younger sample. Two thirds had incomes at the highest level, and only 11 per cent had low incomes.”

But overall, the rate of disadvantage for men was higher than observed in previous studies, with 16 per cent of young men relying on social security payments, compared to 2 per cent in a similar survey in 1993.

This report found that repartnering remains the main way out of financial difficulties for women, and hence their children, following divorce. But women are generally less likely than men to repartner, and the poorest among both sexes have the dimmest repartnering prospects.

Researcher Jody Hughes reports in Marginal Mates and Unwedded Women, a third Family Matters article, that repartnering is most common among men and women with an average economic profile.

It is unlikely for those with few resources: “In particular, women with inconsistent work histories and lower asset wealth were less likely to repartner, and men on the fringes of the labor market were clearly also on the fringes of the `mating market’. This suggests that unemployment, work insecurity and income inequality are influencing patterns of relationship formation and dissolution in Australia.

“Men and women who are unemployed, or in precarious or insecure employment, may be socially as well as economically marginalised, with fewer opportunities to meet people and establish relationships.”

Women with greater economic resources are less likely to remarry than other women, says Hughes.

First published in The Age.