Bezos’ Divorce Leave You Wondering What Americans Think about Couples Sharing Money? There’s Research on That!
Much of the public commentary on Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’ divorce has revolved around how much money each person will be entitled to while divorcing in a community property state and in the absence of a prenuptial agreement. Some worry about what the divorce may mean for Amazon, the company Jeff Bezos founded, and lament Jeff’s potential loss of power at the company. Others counter that he could never have built such a substantial fortune without MacKenzie subordinating her own career. Even commentators who advocate for MacKenzie’s right to 50% of the Bezos’ assets still label the assets accumulated as “his wealth,” something she would be taking from him rather than shared assets to be divided evenly.
The amount of money involved in this divorce is mind boggling. But Americans are divided over such questions even when smaller amounts of money are involved. And expectations of sharing money throughout a marriage are also changing. In my forthcoming article in the Journal of Marriage and Family, I report on an original 2016 survey of nearly 4,000 adults who are demographically representative of the U.S. population. I asked survey respondents to select a money organizing approach for a fictional couple. Participants were randomly assigned a summary of an identical couple except for four characteristics: each partner’s monthly earnings, the couple’s marital and parental status, and the length of their relationship. Respondents were asked if the couple should: (a) Have a shared account in which they both deposit all their earned income; (b) Keep all their earned income in separate, individual accounts; or (c) Have both a shared account and separate, individual accounts.
About half of U.S. adults believe that married couples should share all earned income, no matter who contributed the bulk of it. But the other half believe that married couples should withhold some or all of their earnings from a shared account. Overall, about 40% prefer a partial-pooling option, with the married couple sharing some money and keeping the rest in separate accounts. Ten percent take an entirely individualistic approach, believing married couples should forgo pooling finances, with each person keeping all their own earnings in separate bank accounts. When respondents were told the couple was living together but not married, about 50% of respondents chose a partial-pooling approach for the couple and the rest were closely divided on whether cohabitors should integrate everything or keep all income in separate accounts.
Among people who believe married couples should take a partial-pooling approach, most think that the higher-earning partner is entitled to a greater share of the total household income, reflecting his or her earnings advantage in the labor market and greater contribution to the couple's standard of living. A similar pattern was found among respondents who were told the couple was living together but not married. Interestingly, when asked to get specific about how much more of the household assets should go to the higher-earning partner, people allocated a slightly larger share to the higher-earning woman than to the higher-earning man.
We know that in most couples, men still tend to be the higher earner. Women, more than men, tend to forgo earnings for the sake of the family. In the Bezos’ example, MacKenzie gave up a job at a hedge fund in New York to move to Washington state for his career. One reason couples tend to prioritize men’s careers over women’s careers is because of the persistent gender pay gap. Women are often disadvantaged when it comes to making choices about staying in the labor market too, as couples talk about paying for childcare out of the mother’s earnings rather than as a household expense. Although people believe that it is fair for higher-earning partners to keep a greater share of the total assets within marriages, and likely when they end, the path to unequal outcomes for men and women has already transpired.