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It’s Our Money, Honey!

by Tamara Shayne Kagel

January 4, 2012 | 6:39 pm

My boyfriend and I haven’t even been dating a year and we’re already fighting about a divorce settlement.  Not our divorce settlement, but how much Kobe Bryant’s wife should get.  And then Mel Gibson’s wife.  And somehow it all circles back to Ron Burkle.

In California, the community property laws say that upon divorce, husband and wife must split equally everything that was earned during the marriage.  So if Kobe Bryant is worth $150 million as speculated, without a prenup his wife is entitled to $75 million.  This is because the second a husband earns a dollar in California, the wife is immediately entitled to fifty cents of that dollar meaning yes, the husband only earned himself 50 cents of that dollar in his paycheck.  Any wealth that either party has before the marriage, they both get to keep.  But because Kobe earned his $150 mil while being married, she gets half.  Same goes for Mel Gibson’s wife, because Mel earned all of his $850 million dollars while in his thirty-year marriage.

This problem is I happen to think this is fair.  My Mr. Dreamboat, does not.  It came up for us this past summer, when I was studying to take the CA bar and was reading about Ron Burkle’s divorce.  He’s the supermarket mogul and at the time of his divorce was worth about $2 billion, however he swindled his wife out of the billion she was due and she received only $40 million.  Of course, $40 million is an enormous amount of money, but it’s the principle of the thing, she should have gotten half.  My boyfriend seemed indignant at the idea that any stay-at-home wife in a long-term marriage who had raised children deserved $1 billion dollars for her work.

So how much is it worth, then?
  I snapped back.

I don’t know, but not $1 billion dollars.

Man, did this make me mad.  Mr. DB seems to think that there is a cap on how much a stay at home mom is worth.  This was also the conversation where I found out that he thinks prenups are a good idea which undermines every notion I’ve ever held about marriage.  So, this was not a conversation that bode well for our future.  In his defense, he did say he hadn’t given it much thought and these were just his general first impressions.

But back to our little theoretical tiff.  (And although I use husband in this discussion as the generic breadwinner because it’s still more common, I believe the same rules apply when gender roles are reversed.  So if the wife is the income-earner and the husband is the stay-at-home dad, he is also entitled to half.)  Men seem to think that people like Mel Gibson or Kobe are being swindled out of their fortunes by greedy wives.  The headlines that report these stories lead with titles like “Mel Gibson loses half his fortune” or “Divorce will cost Kelsey Grammer $50 million.”  But you never see ones that say “Gibson’s wife of thirty years who raised seven kids, virtually alone, without ever seeing her husband, and having to endure living with an alcoholic for years gets what she deserves.”  No.  Because like my boyfriend, the men who write these articles don’t believe wives should see a ‘windfall’ just for being a mom.

The problem is, no one actually deserves that much money.  Why does Mel Gibson deserve $425 million dollars?  Just because we have a warped celebrity culture that paid him $20 million dollars a movie to carry around a sword in a horse and wear make-up?  Does Ron Burkle really deserve $2 billion dollars?  Of course not.  No one does.  But he happens to have made it through a combination of luck and circumstance and probably hard work.  And by the same logic, because of luck and circumstance, and hard work, and progressive California property laws that believe marriage is a partnership, his wife should get half.

Plus, maybe Ron Burkle’s wife made it possible for him to earn all that money.  Maybe she supported him during school or helped him make business decisions or kept him afloat when he decided to take big financial risks early on.  Maybe Mel Gibson’s wife was the one telling him all those years to keep his anti-Semitic mouth shut or helping him stay sober and he never would have been able to make those movies in the first place without her. 

My feeling about marriage, is that once you enter into it, you are no longer doing anything as a solo operator.  The sum is greater than the two parts and so it’s not that the husband goes to work, earns money and then shares it with his family.  The marriage is earning the money all along.  Because who makes it possible for that husband to go to work and earn it all?  And especially in the case of a stay-at-home parent, who keeps the husband’s home, and picks up his dry cleaning and picks out clothes that match, and takes the kids to soccer and makes him dinner.  Once married, the breadwinner is not earning that money by himself.  He is enabled by the other spouse.

And on the flip side, if you can really determine a percentage and say that the wife earned herself 25% of the earnings with all her hard work, does the reciprocal of that hold up?  Should the court determine that the husband may claim responsibility for 25% of the people the children turn out to be.  Do we as a society want to suggest that the dad is entitled to 25% of the kids’ affection because he only did 25% of the parenting?

But when this first came up in my relationship six months ago, I didn’t push the issue very far.  It seemed a bit presumptuous to be defensive about how much a woman should be entitled to for raising a family just a few months into dating.  But it has definitely been in the back of mind as a concern of mine regarding our relationship ever since.  Do we fundamentally disagree about our philosophies regarding marriage?  I mean, if my whole idea of marriage is based on a shared partnership philosophy and his is based on earning your worth, my guess is we’d probably flunk one of those e-Harmony quizzes and I wouldn’t be surprised if the screen started flashing red with BAD MATCH written across it.

But thank god for Kobe Bryant because a few weeks ago we got the chance to rehash this all when my grandmother brought up the topic of Kobe’s divorce.  And now, ten months into our relationship, we’re past the point of tiptoeing around potential problems, so I rolled up my sleeves and was ready for the debate.

Do you think she deserves that money?  I demanded to know.

He tried to avoid answering, but after another male said absolutely not, it cleared the road for him to agree.

So I dug in.  I probably got a little too worked up (I could hear the sass in my tone), but I went after him with my reasons as aforementioned above.  The topic got changed and the conversation moved on, but I could not.

So two nights later, over champagne at a fancy dinner, knowing I had made the best argument I could make, I brought it up calmly again.  There is a concern of mine that’s been bothering me lately.  I suggested we had differing philosophical understandings of the institution of marriage.  And though I kept the sass at bay, I just couldn’t resist getting all indignant.  And I just could never marry someone who fundamentally disagreed with me about the philosophy of marriage.  Yeah, I actually said that to him.  And yeah, that would be me being a bitch.  Who gives veiled take it or leave it propositions over abstract philosophy in their relationships?  Not my finest moment.

You make some good points,
he said.  BINGO!  Relief sets in and I allow myself to pick back up my fantasy wedding.  (Why do girls go from zero to sixty on relationship developments in our minds with the slightest smile from a man?)  Anyway, this whole time, I’d been perplexed by his stance on this issue because he’s rather close with his mother who was a stay-at-home mom and I couldn’t understand how he could undervalue her contribution to a family.  But I had forgotten about his father who has been less lucky in marriage.  Mr. DB has seen divorce from the other side.  When there are not long term marriages and there are no children involved do I still believe as strongly that everything must be shared equally?  Well, I hadn’t really thought about it.  I guess I could imagine a hypothetical where the marriage is short and the wife is not contributing anything to the marriage by being an absentee partner and the husband is working hard to earn money and feels like the wife upon divorce is asking for more than her fair sure.  Score one for him.  I can see where he’s coming from, I admit to him

When I think about marriage, I pretty much talk based on my marriage.  Of course, having never been married, I talk based only on how I think it will go.  So knowing myself to be a very hard worker, I imagine that I will work tirelessly at being a wife and mother and at staying married a very long time, and should I chose to sacrifice my career for that, I would want my husband to feel that everything he earned, we earned together because I would be working just as hard as him.  It had never occurred to me that divorce might come after a short marriage or without children cause well I don’t really think about it all.  My parents have been married 35 years, all of my parents’ friends are still married, all my friends’ parents are still married – my mom’s theory on this has something to do with how many Jews make up my life but who knows?  In any case, I didn’t grow up with a lot of divorce.  So naturally my opinion on this is going to be very differently informed than someone who grew up with divorce as part of his life.  All this is to say, I started to feel very bad about all my sass.  But does he really think that any marriage involving me might be short term or involve someone not pulling her weight?

I think you might convince me of this though,
he offers up to me.  I’m gleeful inside. Don’t give up on this one, he smiles knowingly at me.  Just in case, we ever do get married and return from living abroad to move into a beautiful house on the Westside and have four girls and I decide to take a break from my successful career to be at home with the little ones where I continue to work from home and also prepare the most delicious vegetarian meals for our beautiful family every night, just in case of all that, I start to believe that Mr. Dreamboat will see me as an equal.  Phew.  Cause for a minute there, he was just being so ridiculous.  Thank god I’m able to bring us all back down to reality…



Tamara Shayne Kagel is a writer living in Santa Monica, CA. To find out more about her, visit www.tamarashaynekagel.com and follow her on twitter @tamaraskagel. © Copyright 2011.

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