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Should Consumer Protection Disclosure Laws Cover Marriage Licenses?
Imagine you are about to sign a contract. If things go well, you'll look back on this as one of the happiest commitments of your life. But if things don’t—and statistics indicate that about half the time, they won’t—you may have unwittingly signed yourself into a unique form of financial bondage from which, in many states, there is no escape—not even in death.
Under this form of perpetual indenture, a judge can force you to surrender half your assets, then demand, under threat of jail, that you make hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in future payments for the rest of your life. Not because you did something wrong. Not because you broke the law. Simply because he thinks you can afford it—and sometimes even when you can’t.
No one can apply for a credit card or take out a car loan or home mortgage without being buried in pages of legally mandated disclosures describing, in excruciating detail, your total payments, penalties assessed for late payment, and the consequences of default. But any 18-year-old with less life experience than a tuna fish sandwich can sign a marriage license with potential consequences far more devastating than defaulting on a mortgage or missing a credit card payment. And the issuer of that license has no legal requirement to disclose a single word about the potentially devastating financial consequences of divorce.
How can this be?
Many progressive states, like California, pride themselves on standing up for the rights of consumers, doing everything possible to protect the credulous, softheaded, and uninformed from the greed of fast-talking salesmen trying to lure them into debt. Yet these same states are downright antediluvian when it comes to their alimony laws and the paucity of information they provide to those brave (or foolish) enough to enter into the bonds of marriage.
I never thought about this anomaly in consumer protection laws until corresponding with a reader who took issue with some observations I made in one of my Forbes columns praising marriage. He told me a tale of woe that has become all too familiar. Married and divorced when young, he had been making alimony payments for more years than he had been married, supporting an ex-spouse who was cohabitating with another man wise enough not to make the same mistake he did, lest the financial burden pass on to him. On one of his fruitless trips to court seeking relief, the judge literally said that some people need to get used to the idea that they “will be shackled and chained to the carcass of their dead marriage until the day they die”—except since he was also forced to maintain an expensive life insurance policy the payments continue even after his demise.
As a divorced and now happily remarried man whose alimony payments could support an entire African village, I commiserated. At least in my state I had a defined sentence—one year of alimony for every three years of marriage. So I could hunker down and work toward the day when the tax collector and my ex were not teaming up to make off with 75% of my paycheck.
Let’s be clear, we are not talking about child support payments, a shared obligation that most certainly should last until children reach their majority. Nor can one turn a blind eye if one parent sacrificed a career to stay home and raise children, necessitating a transition period to get back into the workforce. We are talking about maintaining the lifestyle of ex-spouses in perpetuity solely because they had gotten used to it while married.
There are numerous organizations like Florida Alimony Reform and New Jersey Alimony Reform trying to rationalize their states’ alimony laws. Some, like Massachusetts Alimony Reform, have actually succeeded in changing the law to eliminate lifetime alimony, at least for marriages that lasted less than 10 years.
Perhaps some of these organizations in states that are resistant to change should take a page from the left and start by demanding simple disclosure. California, where ballot initiatives are a way of life, would be a great place to start. Why shouldn’t every marriage license application contain a page or two describing the potential financial consequences of divorce? And how about attaching a fill-in-the-blanks, no-fault prenuptial agreement? Such a matter-of-fact introduction of that concept into the marriage license application would at least ease the awkwardness of the “I love you forever, but just in case please sign here” conversation.
A society that prides itself on gender equity cannot honestly maintain alimony laws that date back to the days when women were kept “barefoot and pregnant,” totally dependent on their husbands, to be branded as outcasts if divorced. With equal rights come equal responsibilities. It may be too late for some in my generation, but young people today deserve a better deal. Let’s start by making sure they are fully informed about what they are in for before they sign up.
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Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a Boston-based venture capitalist. If you would like to subscribe to his weekly column drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like Bill to speak at your trade group or corporate function, drop him an email at email@example.com.