Home / Opinion / Gold digger or an equal partner?

Popular jokes on divorce portray women as grasping, money-minded gold diggers who clean out the assets of the hard-working man. But look around you—how many such cases do you see? I see the woman who leaves her job to make a family, while the man goes out to work and achieve his career goals. Sometimes, he strikes it very rich, moves to another league of people, products and lifestyle. The wife is suddenly boring and un-classy. He has an affair. She finds out. He has the money and the might. Threatens to take away the kids. She says just let me have custody of the kids, and gives up on her share of the assets built over the life of the marriage. She walks away with no money, with bills to pay and children to bring up. This story has played out so often that it deters divorce in the super rich. The woman knows she will walk away with almost nothing and prefers to stay on.

Before the men reading this crack up and say: but this is not true, we look after the wife so well, and the women count the gifts and the lifestyle, I want to clarify that I’m not talking about trinkets here. It’s not about: see what I got for you today, honey. I’m asking another question. To whom do assets belong when they are built during the lifetime of a marriage? The question takes on meaning especially when there are shares owned in start-ups for entrepreneurs, and employee stock option plans (Esops) owned by the top management of a company.

Who do the assets built during the tenure of a marriage belong to? Ask this question in India and you get different answers depending on what religion you belong to and under which Act you decided to get married. If you got married under the Hindu Marriage Act or the Special Marriage Act and you go for a separation or divorce, you are entitled to only a maintenance from the husband. You have no right over assets or property, even those bought during the tenure of the marriage. The law awards assets to the person who paid for them and the idea of an equal share of assets built over the tenure of a marriage goes against the patriarchal Indian society. This was going to change with The Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2010, which amends the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and the Special Marriage Act, 1954. It aimed at making divorce easier for women and giving them an equal share in the marital property. But the Bill, as it was passed in August 2013 by the Rajya Sabha, gave the discretion to the court to decide how much the woman should get and did not allow 50% division of assets. The Bill lapsed in 2014 and is yet to be revived.

So, there is a legal structure that makes it almost impossible for a woman to get a good financial deal in a divorce situation. There is a patriarchal society that is feudal just below the thin crust of pretence, where property rights are waived in favour of the brothers when the girl gets married. Then there is the social sub-text that makes women believe that they have no head for numbers. The societal frown on women who ask about their share of assets deters such conversations in the marital home. Given this reality, women have found a way to build a little bit of security for themselves.

The woman’s obsession for gold and other precious metals needs to be seen in the context of no security if the men in her life are not feeling generous and she is not financially independent in her own right. At maximum risk is the ‘modern’ woman who frowns on gold and fails to build financial and other assets in her own name during the marriage. For those who want to read more, can read this story by Manoj Mitta http://mintne.ws/1KlCYvv, an earlier story by me in 2002 http://mintne.ws/1OpU799 and a Mint column on the bill http://mintne.ws/1agIxp0.

End note: During my talks and workshops on women and money, there are two most-seen reactions. Some women react saying: my husband loves me too much—this can’t happen to me. Others are nodding hard—they’ve been through it. The third, and biggest group, listens hard and tucks away some lessons for the future. What are these lessons?

First, stop saying that you have no head for numbers. You are perpetuating a lie and a social conditioning to keep you from being financially independent. Two, begin to find out by asking: what do I own, in whose name are the assets and where are the papers kept. While the woman who is married to a rich man has her work cut out in figuring out what she is worth on her own, the rich women out there need to take control of their own money and not rely on a husband or father to manage it. Financial control is key to being independent. Don’t give up on it.

Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, Yale World Fellow 2011 and on the board of FPSB India. She can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com

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