Household Law Meets Household Practice
Go to your local bookstore. The average general bookstore has a full shelf of advice books, which frequently stand high on best-seller lists. Amid the advice on making a billion dollars, losing a hundred pounds, and transforming your psyche, you will find plenty of legal advice, sometimes on how to take a problem before the courts, but more often on how to protect your interests and avoid trouble with the law. When it comes to management of household finances, here, for instance, are some samples of the advice Shelby White gives to women in her book What Every Woman Should Know about Her Husband’s Money. “If you have separate property,” White warns, “think very carefully about whether you want to put it in a joint account. It’s easy to give up control to show that you trust somebody. But you may regret it in the future” (White 1992: 29). She illustrates some of the “terrible mistakes” women make with money:
Using her money for expenses while her husband’s investments increased. For nine of the thirteen years of her marriage, Linda outearned her husband. They split expenses and used her extra earnings to pay taxes. Sounds reasonable. But all the time they were using her money, his separate investment account, which he had before they married, continued to grow. (45)
Using her separate money to buy something in joint name while her husband holds on to his separate investments. When they split, Abby’s husband got half the joint property, Abby got nothing of his separate investments. (46)
But the “biggest mistake of all” White stresses, is “thinking that talking about money is not romantic. The very precautions that would help you at the time of a divorce or the death of your husband—prenuptial agreements, accurate records about property, knowing the value of stock options—are viewed as unromantic” (46-47).
When it comes to family loans, advice experts are equally emphatic. One money expert, for instance, characteristically agrees that parents should help a hard-working child buy a new home or start a business. But “keep it business-like” she counsels: “If you don’t document the transaction you risk not getting paid back and have little recourse legally…. If you loan money to your child and his or her spouse, a written agreement insures that each party has an obligation to you in the event of premature death or divorce” (Sahadi 2000).
A Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples also provides advice for its constituency. It counsels members of same-sex households on a broad range of financial concerns. When it comes to household work, the book offers a specific set of injunctions to make the division of labor equitable:
A person who spends all weekend fixing up a jointly owned house or a home solely owned by the other partner can be paid an agreed-upon hourly rate, with the compensation either paid in cash by the other or added to the carpenter’s equity in the house. A stay-at-home mate can be given a weekly salary or can trade services (you fix the car while your love does the laundry). You should also think about the homemaker’s future if you split up. You can agree on a period of support payments for the homemaker, thereby creating your own alimony-like arrangement by contract. (Curry, Clifford, and Hertz 2002: chap. 6, p. 22)
In the area of household life, legal advice books (plus their equivalents in newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and television broadcasts) make a subtle point of great importance for our understanding of households and the law. Despite the peculiarities of each single case, lawyers, judges, and juries follow principles that are sufficiently visible and uniform for dispensers of advice to tell wary household members which practices will have adverse legal consequences. In this way, interpretations of the law influence household practices Another, even subtler, kind of feedback links legal routines to household practices. Despite general respect for statutes and precedents, lawyers, judges, juries, and legal scholars regularly call attention to perverse consequences of existing statutes and precedents— consequences for life outside the courtroom. For instance, as we saw earlier, having discovered how collective liability for income tax fraud penalized households in which one spouse had cheated on its income tax return, American courts and legislatures worked out a distinctive doctrine to protect truly innocent spouses and other household members. Now advice experts regularly warn spouses to check on income tax returns before signing, to qualify themselves for innocence in the event of a later claim by the IRS. A Washington Post columnist put it bluntly:
Girlfriends, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, look at what you sign. But you are hardheaded. Each year thousands of women find themselves liable for tax debts incurred by their ex-husbands. In most cases these women had let their husbands do the taxes and then had simply signed the tax form presented to them. (Singletary 1999: HO2)
Thus the law and household practice intertwine like vine and tree, each one operating on partly independent principles, each one responding to the other’s life.
Relations between imprisoned felons and their households cast an unexpected light on this interplay between households and the law. In this case, the law of crime and punishment occupies center stage. At a time when the United States ranks second only to Russia among Western countries in its ratio of prisoners to general population, the issue is pressing (Mauer 1999: 19). Looking at the District of Columbia, Donald Braman reports that “about one out of every ten adult black men. . . is in prison, and, at last count, over half of the black men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were under some type of correctional supervision.” The United States, Braman notes, “at a cost of over $40 billion a year.. . now holds one out of every four of the world’s prisoners” (Braman 2004: 3).
Although some convicted felons are solitary men, most of them maintain regular connections, however troubled, with households— their households of origin as well as households they themselves had formed. Members of those households who maintain contact with prisoners bear a serious burden. To document those burdens, Bra – man spent three years interviewing more than two hundred inmates and their families within the District of Columbia. Economic interactions between households and prisoners included (extremely expensive) collect phone calls by prisoners to their families, sending of portions of the miserable wages earned in prison to destitute families, families sending money for prisoners’ purchases in the prison canteen, and repeated negotiations between prisoners and their relatives over means of coping with the economic hardships imposed on families by the prisoner’s absence.
One of Braman’s families illustrates the wrenching difficulties faced by all the rest. Edwina and her son Kenny were at the core of this household’s travails. Years earlier, the now sixty-two-year-old Edwina had moved from Alabama to D. C. She had separated from her husband and raised her two children alone, working her way up to a supervisory position in an Army division. By 1998, she was planning to retire on a small pension, sell her house, and return to
Alabama with the proceeds from that sale to help her sister care for their mother, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. At that point, Edwina shared her house with the forty-two-year-old Kenny and his two sons. Kenny, who worked as a computer technician, helped his mother by paying for routine expenses and the mortgage, as well as taking care of house and car repairs. He also contributed to a niece’s college expenses at Howard University. Ed – wina, meanwhile, helped Kenny with child care.
One violent incident undid their household arrangements. As Kenny returned home one day, he was assaulted by a neighborhood crack addict. He fought back, stabbing the man with a knife he carried for self-protection. The man died and Kenny went to prison. Meanwhile Tasha, Kenny’s daughter from a previous relationship, moved in with Edwina bringing along her newborn baby. Edwina had to make up for Kenny’s lost income and household assistance, as well as to manage the additional costs of occasional babysitters for the children, plus Kenny’s prison expenses. She therefore cancelled her plans to return to Alabama, took a second mortgage on her home, and returned to work part-time. Kenny knew how badly his absence hurt the household. He told Braman: “By me being the only man—I’m from the South, and you know, you’re the man, and you’re supposed to take care of all the females—and there’s just a lot of things around the house that goes wrong. … I fix the car, and I fix all the plumbing and… it becomes a strain when you have to find money to fix things” (Braman 2004: 110). Kenny’s contributions, comments Braman, are “typical in that he not only drew from but also contributed to a number of familial resources, benefiting both himself and others” (109).