A Primer For Primary Earners

Mass media has trumpeted a market research study’s conclusion that young, single, childless, white women living in cities out-earn their male counterparts. Feminists would love to embrace the results, but, in fact, the analysis has many flaws, including the failure to account for educational differences. That hasn’t stopped The New York Times from characterizing this finding as a global “trend” and predicting large scale changes in gender roles.

Despite my skepticism about these conclusions, I want to offer a bit of advice to women who are the sole or primary breadwinner in a committed relationship. As a former Biglaw partner and general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, I’ve played that role—three times.

Based on my experience and those of my second wave feminist friends, I’ve concluded the key factors in the success of such a relationship are (i) the reason for the income disparity and (ii) how the primary earner regards the reason. Are you supporting a stay-at-home dad or mom, a day-trader or a would-be novelist?

A stay-at-home parent is clearly adding value to the family. But how will you feel when you come home after a week of 16-hour days and find your struggling artist playing Mario Kart as an antidote to writer’s block? That’s something only you can decide.

Don’t think I devalue personal pursuits that aren’t potentially gainful. I’m now happily married to a man who devotes his day to spiritual practice. What’s vital is that I respect his choice. But, in truth, I doubt that I would have been so accepting when I was billing 2500 hours a year.

Assuming you and your partner agree that you will be the primary breadwinner and support his or her activities, there are some practical steps you can take to minimize the rough spots.

Discuss up front the responsibilities that the other spouse will have. Start with the general but conclude with details. How many days of the week is he or she responsible for childcare or cooking? Who cleans the house and schleps the laundry?

Also, be clear about budgeting. How much do you both want to spend on items such as housing, vacations and eating out? These are issues all couple should address, but couples with widely disparate incomes may be more likely to encounter an unexpected obstacle: ingrained penny-pinching.

If the partner generating less income has been in that position for years, it may be very difficult for her or him to understand why vacationing at an expensive resort might be a good choice. Airing expectations about what constitute “reasonable” expenditures will be helpful, especially in regard to discretionary items.

Another sensitive subject may be investments. Knowing the personal cost of breadwinning, you may be reluctant to let your significant other have an equal say, or any say, in how hard-earned dollars are invested. Your partner, on the other hand, may feel you don’t respect his or her judgment. There’s no right answer to this quandary, but you should talk it out in advance.

I suggest you memorialize the results of these discussions in writing. Am I suggesting a pre-nuptial agreement? That’s not necessary for budgetary guidelines, but, yes, I do endorse pre-nups.

Pre-nups can be emotional minefields, but they often make economic sense if, as one feminist economist suggests, marriage is viewed as a defined contribution pension plan. Before you rule out a pre-nuptial agreement, consider whether you agree with how your state treats property acquired during marriage. Nine states, including California, have community property laws (50 –50 split) and the rest mandate equitable distribution.

The primary breadwinner isn’t the only party who can be protected by a pre-nup. If you live in an equitable distribution state and your partner will be assuming childcare and homemaking responsibilities, agreeing upfront to a 50-50 split would protect him or her.

Another factor is whether your partner is obligated to pay alimony or child support. A sudden increase in income—that is, your income—could motivate a former spouse to seek increased payments. Similarly, your partner’s liability for other debts should be considered.

If you decide you want a pre-nuptial agreement, there are ways to broach the topic that may minimize hurt feelings. If you’re already married, the law now recognizes post-nuptial agreements that address the same issues. Signing one may be especially desirable if one of you has stopped, or is about to stop, working to take care of children.

Whether you’re allocating assets and income before or after marriage, certain steps are required to create a valid agreement:

● The agreement should be in writing. Some states also require notarization.

● Each party must be advised by his or her own legal counsel.

● Each party must fully disclose assets and liabilities.

● Each party must sign the agreement voluntarily.

With or without an agreement, you’ll find the role of primary breadwinner challenging, demanding and, I hope, satisfying.

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which will be published early in 2012. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrter.

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