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Assessing the contributions of stay-at-home spouses in divorce

In North Carolina, like most states, property division in case of divorce is supposed to be equitable. This means that a court may consider the contributions of both spouses when deciding how to split up assets. While this may be straightforward if both spouses earned an income, it can be more complex if one spouse did not. These spouses are often stay-at-home parents whose support has helped the career of the breadwinner.

More of them are mothers than fathers, and this is consistent with Americans' belief that mothers are better caregivers for babies than fathers. One-quarter of mothers in America do not work outside the home compared to 7 percent of fathers. A study by two Vanderbilt University professors examined attitudes about the value of each person's contributions when assets are divided in a divorce and found that men and women differed.

Study participants read scenarios that described a couple divorcing after 17 years of marriage. Both had worked outside the home for the first five years, but then the mother began staying at home with their children. This was the basic premise, but participants received six variations describing occupation, education and assets. Men valued the contributions of the breadwinner more highly while women valued the work of the stay-at-home mother. Men also tended to base their awards to the mother on her educational level.

Working out a fair division of assets can be a difficult element of divorce. Two households are more costly than one, and both spouses may suffer financially after the divorce. The spouse who is the breadwinner may struggle to keep up with child and spousal support payments, and the lower-earning or nonearning spouse may need some time to build up an income. The couple may be able to negotiate an agreement instead of going to court.

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