Should a person’s motive for getting married matter when they get divorced?
The North Dakota Supreme Court considered this question, among others, in Degnan v. Degnan. In this case, the marriage lasted for five years, the parties were both over 50-years-old when they said “I do,” and, according to witness testimony, financial considerations were among the wife’s motivations for getting married. The trial court used this motivation against the wife in the divorce, saying:
The Court finds that [the wife] entered the marriage for purposes of financial gain and security… Given [the wife’s] intentions in seeking the marriage, she should not suddenly find herself with a better lifestyle than she was associated with at the time of the marriage.
As a result, the trial court awarded only a small amount of spousal support to the wife and limited the percentage of the couple’s property that the wife would receive.
The North Dakota Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s decision. Two justices, both women, concurred with the result, but wrote separate opinions to state that the lower court should not have considered the wife’s motive for marriage.
One of these concurrences — written by a justice who studied literature — is particularly interesting because it references Jane Austen. The justice writes:
Taken alone, [the language quoted above] suggests the district court is punishing [the wife] for considering future financial security as part of the decision to marry. Jane Austen would be astounded. Perhaps at twenty-five one enters marriage considering only love; one would be foolish to do so at fifty. Because the court also identified other factors to support its decision on property division, spousal support, and attorney fees, I concur in the result. (emphasis added).
Considering the fact that Jane Austen lived more than two centuries ago, there are probably many aspects of modern society that would surprise her. Would the negative inference associated with marrying for money be among them? I’m not so sure.
In Jane Austen’s time–and long before it–marriage was a method of obtaining and conserving wealth within families. Having a financially stable spouse was particularly important for women, who either did not work outside of the home or did not earn as much as men. Unsurprisingly, then, in Austen’s novels, a person’s financial stability was an important motivation for marriage. Why else would Charlotte accept the insufferable Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice?
However, as much as Jane Austen would’ve accepted that people marry for money, she probably wouldn’t have been particularly “astounded” by criticisms of that behavior along the lines of what the trial court said in the Degnan case. After all, in Persuasion (on which Amelia Elkins Elkins is based), Mr. William Elliot’s determination to gain wealth and independence through marriage is among his biggest flaws:
“Mr. Elliot married then completely for money? The circumstances, probably, which first opened your eyes to his character.”
Mrs. Smith hesitated a little here. “Oh! Those things are too common. When one lives in the world, a man or woman’s marrying for money is too common to strike one as it ought.”
Other Austen villains are guilty of similar behavior. For example, Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Wickham sought Mr. Darcy’s sister for her fortune, and Northanger Abbey’s Isabella finds a way out of her engagement to John Morland when she learns he is not as wealthy as she had assumed. To young and naive Catherine Morland, “To marry for money I think the wickedest thing in existence.”
Today, as in Jane Austen’s time, individuals of all genders and backgrounds weigh practical considerations when deciding whether to marry. For women, despite having far more financial independence today than they had in Austen’s era, financial considerations may be important because they still don’t make as much money as men do for similar work. For some, then, marriage offers the financial stability that gender discrimination denies women in other areas of their lives. Hopefully, money isn’t the sole reason a person decides to marry, but no one should be astounded nor appalled because it’s a reason some say “I do.”
*If you’re interested in reading Degnan v. Degnan, the opinion is available on the North Dakota Supreme Court’s website.
**For more bookish court opinions of the past year, see Who Speaks for the Opossums?