Protecting Breadwinner Moms

Woman in her office
Woman in her office

Women are now the breadwinners in four out of ten families with children according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center. Factors contributing to this result include more families headed by single mothers, women becoming more highly educated than their male counterparts, and male job loss in the recession.

Regardless of the cause, a woman who is a primary breadwinner in a committed relationship will likely hit some rough patches as her partner deals with this reality. As a former Big Law 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 Halo as an antidote to writer's block? That's something only you can decide.

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 friction.

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 advocating 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. You should 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'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.