Delaware Courts Rule That Ex-Wife’s Alimony Cost Can Be Calculated by Reducing Tithe

We tend to hear about the “free exercise” clause in cases like the Affordable Care Act, where the Catholic Church says it should not be required to provide employees’ insurance coverage for contraception in their non-churchy institutions (like hospitals and universities, for example).

One Delaware divorcee recently thought it could apply to her, too — she used “free exercise” to challenge a court’s calculation (PDF) of the alimony she was required to pay to her husband.

Vanessa Wright (A pseudonym) was ordered by Family Court of the State of Delaware to pay David Wright (ditto) $1,313 a month in alimony. Why that much? In short, David suffered a back injury preventing him from working as a field engineer and has relied almost entirely on his then-wife since 1996. Vanessa is a school principal making $110,000 a year.

In Delaware, alimony awards take into account the monthly expenses of each party, seeking to maintain the standard of living for both. Vanessa calculated her monthly expenses to include a $1,000 a month tithe to her church (10% of her income). The family court found the tithing to be a “voluntary charitable contribution,” rather than an obligatory expense like gas or groceries. They felt a more reasonable amount “in light of [the parties’] current expenses” would be $100 a month. Using the new calculations, she would still be left with more than $1,400 a month — enough to pay a larger tithe if she wanted to. The court simply did not think it was necessary to reduce the husband’s alimony award to maintain that higher level of tithe.

Vanessa fought the decision through an appeal — saying that they were preventing her “free exercise” of religion — but the Supreme Court of Delaware rejected it a few days ago.

Never mind the fact that marriage vows were broken or that her ex-husband actually needed the money for his basic welfare — her ethical and charitable impulses were attuned solely to the church. Never mind the fact that she had what amounted to no legal support for her argument — she was hell-bent on vindicating her rights or reducing that alimony award, whichever benefited her more. The court wasn’t buying it — they found that the family court had not “abused its discretion” when they re-calculated the alimony award. The result isn’t surprising; courts of appeal grant lower courts wide berth in making their decisions.

For what it’s worth, the court’s holding is narrow; the ruling applies only in Delaware and only in divorce cases. It means only that Delaware courts do not interfere with religious freedom when they use discretion in alimony calculations to reduce voluntary charitable expenses to what they feel are reasonable amounts. They are not required to do so, but they may. The holding is, however, part and parcel with the broader understanding that requiring everyone to follow the same laws does not violate free exercise, an individual’s rights are not superior simply because of a professed religion, and courts are not going to bend over backward to accommodate unfounded cries of infringement on religious freedom.

Vanessa Wright will not get special consideration in her divorce proceedings just because she gives money to a particular church — and that’s exactly how it should be.

(image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Conspirator

    The headline appears to contradict what happened.  She lost and the alimony wasn’t reduced because of her tithing, right?

    • Dbaker13

      There’s a church in Arkansas that takes people’s bank account information for a 10% tithe. I’m fairly sure it’s required to be a member.

      Disgusting.

      • Conspirator

        That’s pretty messed up.  Although I wonder how they determine what to withdraw.  It’s not like they could set up a withdrawal for 10% of any deposit.  Perhaps they just provide an automated way for their clientele?  

        When I was real young I attended a Catholic school for a few years.  My mom mentioned once that in order to get free tuition the church did require that my parents provide their 1040s or something along those lines so they could compare income vs. tithing.  I assume if my parents weren’t tithing enough, they would have had to pay tuition. 

      • http://twitter.com/KevinSagui Kevin Sagui

        Given the obviously mandatory nature of the tithe there, I wonder if that’s been re-classified as a membership fee?  I’d imagine that would lead to a different tax structure.

    • Nathan

      I do not know how the Catholic church operates. As a Christian we are commanded to give 10% to the church as everything we have is owed to God anyway and all he asks is a small portion of it in return. We are not required by the Church to give tithe however. That is between you and God. He also commands us to put 10% in savings. Whether you chose to follow his word is entirely up to you, but it is a commandment. Much like accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and being baptized. If you are a Christian you obey God and what he commands. No questions asked. However, we are also commanded to follow the laws of the land. Don’t break the law, and do your best to stay true to God and his word.

      • Conspirator

        I don’t recall the church ever commanding us to tithe.  I have to ask  though, where in the bible does god command you to tithe?  And where does it say you must put 10% in savings?  I know when the apostles founded the christian church it was run like a cult and they demanded people give them everything to join.

        • Nathan

          Corinthians 9:6-7. Although it may not be a commandment does tell us that God loves a cheerful giver. Those who give a lot shall receive a lot in return. Maybe he doesn’t command us to give but he say it is the right thing to do and I always try to do what makes my father in heaven happy.

          • Conspirator

            9:7 Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.

            That’s a far cry from commanding to tithe and commanding to save.  You do realize that, don’t you?  And of course this is just one of the supposed writings by Paul to the Corinthians.  

            • Natahn

              I’m pretty sure I just said that in my second post.

              • Conspirator

                Well that’s a pretty big change.  Perhaps you should read the bible a bit closer and see what else it actually says vs. what your church is claiming it says.  If you look into it a bit you’ll see that all sorts of horrible things makes your god happy throughout the bible.  

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I’m a little confused about alimony. I understand child support, but former spouse support? If two people get divorced, is one required to support the other for life? Why is he entitled to payments from her at all? His disability isn’t connected to the marriage. Presumably he would have been disabled just the same if he’d stayed single. Why does he get part of her income simply because they were once married?

    • Alyeska

       He was totally reliant on her income to survive given his injuries.  If she was the fault in the divorce, then he should not be punished for her failings.

      Its normally seen in the other direction.  Husband and Wife for 20 years.  2 kids graduated high school.  Wife spent the entire time at home.  No career.  No education.  Husband has an affair and divorces the wife.  Wife has no marketable skills.  No work history.  Why should she be punished by the husbands bad deeds?

      • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

        Well, actually, I don’t see the reverse situation as normal. I don’t think the man should have to support the woman for the rest of his life, simply because she chose not to get an education or work. If she’s able-bodied, she should get a job and pay her own way. Same for a man who didn’t get an education and stayed home for the duration of his marriage.

        Now this situation is complicated because there’s a disability involved. I’m not clear when the disability happened, but I don’t know why she should have to support him for the rest of her life. If the man hadn’t gotten married, who would be paying his bills? I imagine he would be on social security/disability. Why is that not an option? Why is she responsible for him forever?

        • The Vicar

          I don’t think Alyeska was saying “the reverse is normal” but rather “when alimony is awarded, the most common situation is for the man to pay the woman”.

          As for your right-wing Libertarian leanings: well, that’s your opinion. Society feels otherwise. My opinion is that the less influence people like you have, the better.

          • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

            “People like me?” What on earth? Thanks for the insult, but I’m no right-wing Libertarian. I’m a Democrat. If people are disabled and unable to work, I do think the government should take care of them. I believe the benefits should be generous; there’s no reason for disabled or elderly people to live close to the poverty line.

            However, I don’t see why former spouses are obligated to financially support each other after their marriage ends. Male, female, it doesn’t matter. Child support makes sense to me, but I don’t think alimony does. If people choose to opt out of the workforce, I don’t think their former spouses should be obligated to pay for their living expenses. Again, this situation is complicated because of the disability, but I still don’t see it as fair. People aren’t obligated to support other people they have relationships with, ie: elderly parents, siblings, or grown children. Why is there an exception for former spouses?

            • Roger

              I believe that alimony is on a sliding scale that can be recalculated if the recipient’s status changes due to changes in employment, disability, or marital status. So it’s not the case that alimony is meant to be paid to the person forever; it’s meant to be a safety net until the person can get their life together after the breakup. Now, it’s not always the case that it’s used that way, of course, but that is the intent.

              • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                Thanks for the info. I don’t have a problem with alimony being a safety net at all. In fact, I think it makes sense to a certain extent. If a marriage ends suddenly, the stay-at-home spouse might find herself (or himself) in a precarious financial situation, with no income being generated. But I would hope that it would only be a temporary thing, and that a time limit would be enforced, kind of like severance pay from a company. Businesses don’t keep paying former employees forever, because it’s expected that they will get another job and generate their own income.

                • Noadi

                  Many states do set time limits for alimony.

            • Coyotenose

               Parents, siblings and children don’t sign contracts linking their futures, then divide up household responsibilities such that one person is wholly reliant on the other. The homemaking half of many, many divorced couples would end up destitute. And keep in mind that the homemaking half is almost always the half with primary responsibility for and knowledge of the needs of any children.

              While overstated, the “Libertarian” comment is based on your apparent assumption that those wrecked by their employed spouse suddenly dumping them can pull themselves up by their magic bootstraps and not have to spend the next decade trying, and often failing, to get themselves up to a level where they aren’t counting pennies every day.

            • Coyotenose

               Sorry, scratch the “apparent assumption” stuff. It’s clear that you weren’t thinking that way, based on your later comments. My apologies.

              • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                No problem. I do see the marital relationship as different because the two people decide to join their finances together, and legal marriage comes with strings attached. In a divorce, I think it’s proper for assets to be divided equally and children to be provided for. I’m not against alimony as a temporary safety net, especially if the divorce comes as a surprise. A lot of this hinges on the idea that there’s wrongdoing in the marriage, or that the working spouse has decided to end things. That might not be the case. It could be the stay-at-home spouse who’s the “guilty” party, and on the hook for permanently supporting the person who did him/her wrong. That seems doubly unfair.

                I’m really not a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” sort of person at all. I wish the government did more in the way of providing safety nets for people. But I think when people do intentionally opt out of the workforce, then they’re not entitled to live off the support of their former spouse on a permanent basis. Especially if the person is under, say, 65 and able-bodied. 

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            Anna?  Libertarian?  *snort*

        • Onamission5

          Some people– and courts– actually value child raising as valid work deserving of respect and compensation, regardless of which parent made the sacrifice to stay at home.

          • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

            Of course, and I’m fully in favor of child support. Maybe I’m mistaken about alimony, but I was under the impression it came into play regardless of the reason the spouse stayed at home. If a woman (or man) didn’t get an education and chose not to work, then they would still get alimony from their former partner even if they weren’t raising children, or weren’t raising them for the entire duration of the marriage.

            • Kodie

               We’re assuming she had a choice, or they didn’t make a choice together on the assumption that they would still be married once the children had grown and a reasonable expectation that her husband would still take care of her, i.e. having made a “choice” with a certain future in mind. If you plan to get divorced someday, you might make a different choice. As far as a disability goes, you do.. usually make promises when you get married to love each other in sickness and health. Not sure whether that’s a binding part of a legal agreement or just ritual mumbo-jumbo, since a lot of people can’t handle being married to a sick person and it does test relationships, and I don’t know if that’s (that he couldn’t earn a living) why she divorced him. But I think getting married to someone is supposed to be a legal protection against not being married, that someone else is partially responsible for your well-being and vice versa. That’s why when people get divorced, it has more provisions and settlements than just parting ways and carrying on by yourself.

              • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                True, but I think these laws date from an era when women were not expected to contribute financially to the household. In our current society, no woman should go into a marriage expecting to be supported by her husband for the rest of her life. If he chooses to support her, that’s one thing, but I don’t see it as a right or entitlement.

                And frankly, the idea makes me shudder. I was raised in an egalitarian lesbian household. Both my parents worked, and I can’t imagine ever letting my own partner support me. We’re not married, but we’ve been together over a decade, and I’ve always insisted we split our financial obligations 50/50. If we did marry and divorce, I wouldn’t want the law to force him to give me money, even though I don’t earn as much as he does. I would think it was my responsibility to pay my own way, even though it would probably mean a slight dip in standard of living.

                • Kodie

                  In our current society, no woman should go into a marriage expecting to
                  be supported by her husband for the rest of her life. If he chooses to support her, that’s one thing, but I don’t see it as a right or entitlement.

                  The law doesn’t tell you how to be married, unless you’re gay, in most states. The law is why rich people draw up prenuptial agreements. The law is why people can choose to raise children instead of maintain career progression. Divorce is a side-effect of marriage, and I think it’s necessary to protect people who are fooled into marriage or fooled while being married or lulled into a sense of security. The only way a rich guy doesn’t lose half his stuff is making arrangements to take care of his ex-wife on reasonable but not outrageous terms, to some level at which she’s become accustomed, and it’s the law that she should get half (or whatever) so he can’t just throw her out on the street back where she came from.

                  Not everyone marries with eyes wide open and all your own shit together. If you’re old enough and you want to, and you’re straight, unrelated and human, you can get married. The law doesn’t tell you how long to date, how to arrange your own long-term affairs financially, or keep people from entering marriage for personal financial reasons instead of love – hey. You know that’s very popular. Here, religion can sometimes require this kind of planning, so you’re all on the same page. The law doesn’t require it, and some people can choose to make use of it, but don’t want to have such boring conversations when they’re in loooooove.

                  Yes, I realize these laws were put in when women were considered property and gave men some pause for thought to entering a marriage. What woman would enter marriage willingly if she could not guarantee herself taken care of? I think feminism would have arrived much sooner, but divorce was uncommon and men could treat their wives however they want. In exchange, he also took care of her financially. He may not love her or need her anymore, but he had taken her on as a responsibility.

                  We are still in an age where little girls want to be a princess and live in a castle. Values of dependence and wealth are still predominant, not just in religious patriarchy, but overall. However, if divorce provided nothing for anyone but their stuff, maybe knowing that, people would plan their lives accordingly and rather independently. I think people would not enter into marriage if it provided no sort of guarantees and amenities that getting divorced upsets a great deal.

                  If they could do it themselves, they wouldn’t have to get married, because I still think of it as an economic transaction mostly in order to provide for minor dependents, and love is… I don’t know. An illusion, sort of, to provide the kind of relationship in which two constant people provide for these minor dependents. Whether two people who never intend to care for minor dependents get married is, to me, a side effect, but the law favors two constant adults rather than one adult or several different interchangeable adults pretty much expressly for this purpose. The law doesn’t care if you love each other, it just cares that you don’t back out of a promise.

                  Laws against gay people getting to be those two constant adults gaining the same benefits of marriage have as much to do or more, I think, with traditional gender roles and expectations in traditional definitions and laws about marriage and divorce as it does that they can’t between themselves produce children without outside help – plenty of straight people utilize what society allows for that.

            • Onamission5

              It is assumed that the parent who stays home does the majority of the child raising, mostly because that is usually how it plays. Not always, of course. Spousal support is supposed to make up for what was sacrificed by the individual for the good of the family: job training, schooling, so on.

              It is my understanding re: spousal support that with rare exception of some truly chi-chi lifestyles of the rich and famous cases in which the spouse feels they are due a perpetual 30K/mo lifestyle mantainance plan, there is no expectation by the court that support be eternal. It is supposed to be paid until the spouse remarries, or until such time as s/he is able to support him or herself, frequently a year or two. Yes, there are cases of abuse in which spousal support is used to punish the payer, but there are also cases where withholding of support is used to punish the recipient. No system is perfect.

              And, it also varies wildly in no fault states because discretion is up to individual courts. Some spouses cannot get support at all except in really extraordinary circumstances, like say, they used their small inheritance to put their spouse through medical school and cared for the children, forgoing school themselves until after the spouse graduates, then voila, divorce.  One spouse is left without resources or job training, one has a paid for medical degree in hand. In some courts, in some no-fault states, that would be an exception. In others, the spouse who gave up their resources to support their spouse through school would be told “too bad, so sad.”


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