Friday, February 08, 2008

Wives And Allowances

An excellent post by Sephardi Lady links to a message board called Imamother, which is frequented by wives and mothers. The topic of the this particular thread was about whether the wife receives an allowance from her husband. One women happily admitted that her husband gives her $200 a week for household and personal expenses, and then she is grateful when she has extra money in case unexpected expenses come up, such as an exterminator.

I feel like I'm in a time warp when reading comments like that. Perhaps the wife is a compulsive spender, so limiting her access to money is a good thing. And maybe no couple in 2008 really operates this way. In that case, I'm just talking about a hypothetical world. But if some marriages really do function this way, I can't see how those marriages aren't inherently unfair.
Let's assume allowances are characteristic in marriages where the husband is the sole breadwinner. Let's say he has a business or obtained a degree while they were married. Well it's his money, so he can give her as much as he wants, right?

That's just not how our society or legal system understands the nature of marriage. In New York, if a husband acquires a professional degree during the marriage, the degree is considered marital property and half of the degree -- or more accurately the present and future earning power of that degree -- belongs to the wife. The rationale underlying this legal rule is that the wife participated in the acquisition of the degree by taking care of the household duties and/or supporting the husband while in school.

This conception of marriage is that of an equal partnership. Both parties provide inputs into the marriage, so if it has to be dissolved, both should split the outputs. In my mind, this conception is probably the most accurate.

But there is another understanding of marriage that would also make sense. The husband would have complete ownership over the business or degree but he is obligated to pay the wife for her services. This notion of marriage views it as an employer-employee relationship. While some of us might consider that view morally problematic, it makes sense economically. The husband might own the business and have a right to control all the finances, but he has an obligation to provide her with the market value of his services. Considering how much live in maids and nannies go for, I imagine 200 dollars a week doesn't cover it, especially when included in that $200 is the very money she needs to do her chores.

What doesn't make sense is the idea of marriage that expects the wife to do the chores, raise the children, and give up any semblance of a career, but not receive adequate remuneration. The husband can't control all the money and not pay her for her services. Either she has equal access and they are partners or she is an employee who gets paid. Any other way just seems unfair.

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