Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

back
Topic /161
Orr v. Orr

Citation. Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. 268, 99 S. Ct. 1102, 59 L. Ed. 2d 306, 1979 U.S. LEXIS 65 (U.S. Mar. 5, 1979)

Brief Fact Summary. Appellant alleged that Alabama’s alimony statute was unconstitutional because it provided that husbands, but not wives, may be required to pay alimony upon divorce.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Alabama statute is unconstitutional because it is not rationally related to the legitimate state objectives proposed for the statute.

Facts. William, appellant, and Linda Orr, appellee, were issued a final decree of divorce on February 26, 1974, with appellant ordered to pay appellee $1,240 per month in alimony. On July 28, 1976, appellee initiated a contempt proceeding against appellant alleging he was in arrears in his alimony payments. Appellant alleged in his defense that Alabama’s alimony statute should be declared unconstitutional.

Issue. Is Alabama’s alimony statute, which provides that husbands, but not wives, may be required to pay alimony upon divorce constitutional?

Held. Such statutes are unconstitutional in situations such as this where the State’s compensatory and ameliorative purposes are as well served by gender-neutral classification as one that gender classifies.
The statute is subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause because it provides that different treatment be accorded on the basis of sex. To withstand such scrutiny, the classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achieving those objectives.

This Court rejects as a legitimate purpose the state’s preference for traditional sex-based roles in marriage as antique. Two legitimate state objectives proposed for the statute are to provide help for needy spouses, using sex as a proxy for need; and compensating women for past discrimination during marriage.

In the present case the classification at issue is not substantially related to achievement of these objectives. Individual hearings already occur in Alabama where the parities’ financial circumstances are considered. Therefore, the compensatory purpose may be effectuated without placing burdens solely on husbands. Furthermore gender classification produces perverse results in this case because the wives who benefit from the disparate treatment are those who are not needy spouses. Classifications such as these carry an inherent risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes, and statutes designed to ameliorate the effects of past discrimination must be carefully tailored.

Discussion. The Court found that the statute was not rationally related to the objectives because little if any additional burden would be placed on the state by providing help for needy males as well as needy females.