Should a man expect his ex-wife to pay him maintenance when they divorce? In the States, the number of men claiming alimony from better- earning wives is rocketing. Liesl Schillinger reports
Does a 35-year-old man with a lousy job deserve a four-figure consolation prize every month from his better-heeled ex-wife? Or is the phenomenon of men seeking alimony, now becoming rife in the United States, just the latest, most shameless example of men behaving badly - and getting paid for it?

The number of male clients in the US claiming financial support from high-earning exes has doubled in the last five years. Only this month, the actress Kirstie Alley, who plays the glam, bar-managing martinet in Cheers, is fending off an alimony suit by her estranged husband Parker Stevenson, the Baywatch hunk. Stevenson seeks to keep his head above water with 75,000 of Alley's dollars a month, until their two young children turn 18.

Manhattan celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder laments the trend. "This is not a guy thing to do, and to me it's an unthinkable situation personally," he says. "But as more and more women are in monied positions, this is going to keep on happening." Felder has fought on both sides of the divide, representing Larry Fortensky in his divorce from Elizabeth Taylor and actress Robin Givens in her divorce from boxer Mike Tyson. But "monied positions" no longer has to mean millionairesses or actresses; the new wave of accidental benefactresses are career women whose chief distinction is that they out-earn their former mates.

In the case of a female executive who earned $200,000 a year and whose ex-husband earned $50,000, scrupulous California courts awarded the man $40,000 in spousal support. Another lucky male plaintiff, whose wife of four decades divorced him after coming into a modest inheritance, sued for and won $500 alimony a month. "She tried to make me feel guilty, but I don't one bit," he stroppily declared. If this is progress, some feminists have begun grumbling, than let's have some regression. But is male alimony progress?

Ever since 1979, when the US Supreme Court ruled that allowing women, but not men, to receive alimony was unconstitutional, women have been ripe for spousal support judgments, at least technically. But back then, the feeling was that any man who regarded his wife as a meal ticket was a cad. In some quarters, it still is. As one 37-year-old male writer comments, "It's kind of wimpy." And as the American TV journalist Joan Lunden famously remarked during her own acrimonious divorce, "Why the courts don't tell a husband who has been living off his wife to go out and get a job is beyond me."

But in a society where women have as many career options available to them as men, why shouldn't a wife who has been living off her husband also go out and pound the pavement herself? Stanley Siller, the founder of the National Organization for Men, thinks that is a very good question. "I have applied for alimony or maintenance for male clients many times over the last ten or 12 years, and had it denied," he complains. "Judges do not consider the application on the same level that they would an application for a woman." Why don't they? As Raoul Felder explains, "The usual profile is that we get a very wealthy woman, and the man basically marries the woman for the money. That situation doesn't play too well with the bowling crowd." Nor does it impress a judge.

The fact is, on common sense grounds alone, many Americans have a hard time understanding why a man needs alimony at all. In nearly all divorces that involve children, the wife gets custody. Many of the husbands who receive alimony use part of it to pay for child support. But that still leaves a tidy sum, and for the husbands who have no child support to pay, it leaves a virtual cash bonanza. To the female doctors and lawyers, businesswomen and other professionals who have slogged up the corporate hill to earn salaries in the low six figures, the idea that they should be held legally liable to pay tens of thousands to their five-to-no-figure-earning exes, doesn't seem fair. After all, what precisely do the tens of thousands go to? Beer and pizza? Aftershave? Gym memberships?

Stanley Siller finds something wrong with such tacit assumptions of male parasitism. "If you imagine a woman who was not working and had a long marriage come to an end, no one objects to her application," he points out. And the courts seem to agree, on certain conditions. When a man can convince a judge that he has been a stay-at-home dad, has stood by his wife for an impressive stretch of time or has become sick and cannot reasonably support himself, he is well on his way to that monthly cheque. As Felder concedes, "There are perfectly acceptable cases where the man has made sacrifices for the woman's career, and he deserves alimony."

It may be that the rise in the acceptability of male alimony is just one more sign that that what society does not find acceptable is women who earn more then men: it is a kind of backlash that warns women not to earn too much. And yet, ironically, in the last five years in which twice as many men have started seeking alimony, women's earnings dollar for dollar compared to men's have dropped from 77 cents to 75. Women still do earn less then men as a sex, and the biggest salaries still go to men, not women. The impression is hard to stamp out; job opportunities are greater for men, or at least for those men who care to seek them.

Society assumes that all women make sacrifices, or at the least, serious compromises, to their personal independence in order to take care of their husbands and children. In September Brenda Barnes, President and CEO of North American operations at Pepsi-Cola, announced she would quit her job at the end of the year, explaining that she could not live with herself if she missed one more of her children's birthday parties - and undoubtedly decreasing the risk that she would ever find herself paying alimony. Because she is a woman, on one level society applauds her commitment to what "really matters". But what if it were her husband who quit his job? Society suspects that a man who makes sacrifices for his spouse secretly lacks initiative. In the new topsy-turvy climate, working women who don't want to spread the wealth had better take a different kind of initiative - and write no-alimony clauses into their pre-nups.

It can happen here...

There is not and never has been gender bias in English law governing claims for alimony, meaning that both men and women can apply. The law simply refers to "the applicant". The law in question is the Matrimonial Causes Act, most recently updated in 1973. A top lawyer confirms that in recent years the number of men seeking alimony has grown, partly because increasing numbers of children now live with their fathers after a divorce. It is more common for a court to grant a man's alimony claim via a one-off capital payment, rather than by a monthly maintenance allowance.