Married life is characterized by a sharing norm. As I described in an earlier post, spouses commit to and in fact engage deeply in sharing behavior, including a shared family economy. Overwhelmingly, spouses pool economic resources, including labor, and decide together how to allocate them to benefit the family as a whole.
In addition to its affects in the paid labor market (see my last post), sharing money matters inside a functioning marriage. It shapes the couple relationship as well as each partner individually. Research shows that in an ongoing marriage, money is a relational tool. For example, making money a communal asset is a way to demonstrate intimacy and commitment, and that can nurture a couple’s bond. Yet, in some circumstances, an assignment of resources to just one spouse can also be understood (by both partners) to be appropriate and deserved—a recognition of the individual within a sharing framework. Conversely, it is also possible that spouses’ monetary dealings can undermine individual autonomy and the relationship as well. For example, one person might exercise authority over money in a way that disregards the other. Accordingly, power to influence financial resource allocation within the family is important for individual spouses and for togetherness.
It becomes a special concern then, that sharing patterns in marriage are gendered. As highlighted in my previous post, role specialization remains a part of modern intimate partner relations. Particularly true for married couples, men continue to perform more as breadwinners, and women more as caregivers. As a result, women tend to have reduced earning power in the market. How does this market asymmetry translate into economic power at home? Happily, in a significant departure from the past, a majority of couples report that they share financial decisionmaking power roughly equally. Indeed, most married couples today endorse gender equality as an important value in their relationship. However, in a significant minority of marriages, spouses agree that husbands have more economic power. For some couples then, a husband’s breadwinning role and/or perhaps his gender, confers authority in contentious money matters.
How should law governing an ongoing marriage respond to these sharing dynamics? Consider this hypothetical fact situation. A husband has a stock account from which he plans to make a gift to his sister who he feels really needs the money. The husband suspects that his wife would not approve of the gift. Even though the wife too loves the sister, she believes the sister is irresponsible with money. Let’s assume that the money in that stock account was acquired while the parties were married, and that it came from the market wages of one or both of the spouses earned during marriage. It was a product of the couple’s shared life. Does contemporary law allow the husband to give his sister the gift without her consent? Without even telling her? How should legal power over the money be allocated?