Orr v. Orr 1979

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Orr v. Orr 1979

Appellant: William H. Orr

Appellee: Lillian M. Orr

Appellant's Claim: That Alabama's alimony law requiring only husbands, not wives, to pay alimony violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: John L. Capell III

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: W. F. Horsley

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist

Date of Decision: March 5, 1979

Decision: Ruled in favor of William Orr by agreeing that Alabama's alimony law fostered unconstitutional sex discrimination by requiring only husbands, not wives, to pay alimony.

Significance: The decision changed the way in which family court judges determine alimony payments during divorce proceedings. Both the husband's and wife's circumstances must be considered, rather than only the wife's situation, as before.

"N o longer is the female destined solely for the home and the rearing of the family, and only the male for the marketplace [employment] and the world of ideas [important decision-making roles]." Statement by the U.S. Supreme Court in Stanton v. Stanton (1975).

Alimony is regular payments of money that a family court judge determines one spouse (husband or wife) owes the other after divorce. The purpose of the payments is to make divorce more fair for the spouse who is most economically affected. Alimony is different from property settlements or child support. Alimony payments are not considered punishment by the courts.

Alimony and Divorce Through Time

In early English history, divorce between a married couple was not permitted. Unhappy married couples would often live apart with the husband still responsible for providing ongoing financial (money) support for the wife. As divorce became more acceptable through time, the traditional responsibility of the husband providing support continued. This monetary support became known as alimony.

Traditionally in America, husbands and wives took on certain set roles in the family that society expected of them. The wife was responsible for taking care of the home and raising the kids. College educations and professional careers were discouraged. The husband was expected to provide the primary source of income supporting the family. Some states wrote their alimony laws to match this expected family norm.

During proceedings divorce judges would often follow general state guidelines in determining the amount of financial support (alimony) needed by the wife, if any. The divorce judges exercised a great deal of flexibility to determine what was fair. If the ex-husband failed to make the alimony payments, one of the few options the former wife had available to her to correct the situation was to file contempt-of-court charges against the former husband.

An example of state laws reflecting these family norms was the Alabama gender-based (based on sex of the person) alimony law. The law read, "If the wife has no separate estate [possessions] or if it be insufficient for her maintenance, the judge, upon granting a divorce, at his discretion, may order to the wife an allowance out of the estate of the husband, taking into consideration the value thereof and the condition of his family." The law assumes that the wife is always dependent on the husband's income, and never the reverse. The husband's needs were not important. The Alabama Supreme Court had noted in 1966 that for situations where the wife had been the primary source of family income "there is no authority in this state for awarding alimony to the husband."

Gender Discrimination and Equal Protection

Such gender-based state laws began to increasingly reach the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s. In Reed v. Reed (1971) the Court for the first time struck down a state law by extending the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to gender discrimination. The clause requires equal treatment of all citizens by state laws unless sufficient reasons support otherwise. In Craig v. Boren (1976) the Court expressed a more modern vision of the American woman having her own political and economic identity in striking down an Oklahoma law. Importantly, the Court ruled that gender discrimination cases must be more closely examined (scrutiny) by the Court than in the past. The government must now prove that the challenged law serves an important government objective (goal) and the law must substantially (significantly) relate to reaching that objective.

The Orrs

In February of 1974, Lillian and William Orr obtained a divorce in the Lee County Circuit Court of Alabama. As part of the divorce settlement, the court ordered William to pay Lillian $1,240 each month in alimony. After a couple of years William stopped making the required payments. In July of 1976 Lillian went back to the Circuit Court and filed contempt of court charges. She demanded he begin making the payments again, plus provide missing payments. The court responded by ordering William to begin making payments again. The court also told him to pay back payments and Lillian's court expenses, a total of over $5,500.

William appealed the decision to the Alabama's Court of Civil Appeals claiming Alabama's alimony law was not valid. He asserted that because the law only required husbands to pay alimony and not wives, the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In March of 1977, the appeals court rejected William's argument and agreed with the circuit court's decision. William appealed again, first to the Alabama Supreme Court which declined to accept the case, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear it.

An Important Government Purpose

As in the lower courts, Lillian Orr simply argued that the Alabama law was indeed constitutionally valid under the Equal Protection Clause. Because the state law treated males and females differently therefore not equally protecting the two groups, it must serve some important government purpose to be considered constitutionally valid. Lillian asserted the alimony law served three important government purposes, she contended: (1) to support the traditional structure of families by making the husband always economically responsible for the family; (2) to lessen the cost of divorce for needy wives; and, (3) to repay women for past economic discrimination within traditional American marriages. In arguing against the law's constitutionality, William Orr did not claim that Lillian should pay him alimony. He did argue, however, that if the circuit court was required to consider his circumstances too, then the amount of alimony payments might have been less. He contended the law was unconstitutional based on lack of equal protection.

Justice William J. Brennan, writing for the Court, noted that previous Supreme Court rulings had established that "classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives." In reviewing the Alabama law, Brennan disagreed with the first government purpose of supporting traditional family structure. He asserted that the ideas of what the state thought a family should be did not apply to many families in modern America. Though agreeing the law's other two purposes had some merit, the law's approach requiring only husbands to pay alimony was clearly not valid.

Brennan pointed out that the process of review by a family law judge in determining alimony makes the process very personalized. The Alabama law need not be gender-based. The Alabama law more likely served to uphold outdated role models than correct past social injustices. Brennan concluded, "it would cost the State nothing more, if it were to treat men and women equally by making alimony burdens independent of sex."

In the 6–3 decision, the Court ruled the Alabama law unconstitutional in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court also sent William Orr back to the lower courts to determine his alimony situation.


A key effect of the Supreme Court decision in Orr v. Orr was how judges determine alimony payments in divorce proceedings. The amount and length of payment can be determined through a court-approved agreement between the former husband and wife, or it could be set by the court, especially when agreement was not possible.

The amount a husband or wife owes usually depends on several complex factors. These include the person's financial needs who is requesting alimony whether it be the husband or wife, the ability of the other person to pay alimony, the standard of living they had been use to in marriage, their age and health, how long they were married, and how long it would take the person requesting alimony to become more self-sufficient through education or job-training. Court decisions often consider the non-monetary contributions of both husband and wife to the marriage, including neglecting their own careers to support the spouse's.

Alimony payments end if the former wife dies or remarries. However, alimony payments could continue from the estate of a former husband, even after his death, through trusts or insurance policies. Payments can always been changed, as well, if basic conditions of either person changes.

Who Was Injured?

In dissent, Justice William Rehnquist asserted that there was no case existed because no one was wronged by the Alabama law in this instance. William Orr is "a divorced male who has never sought alimony, who is . . . not entitled to alimony even if he had, and who contractually bound himself to pay alimony to his former wife and did so without objection for over two years." The case would have been more appropriate if brought by a man deserving support, but denied alimony by the state gender-based law. Orr had little to gain from the decision.

Changing Alimony Standards

The decision provided a major change in how American marriages were legally viewed. Factors concerning both the husband and wife would have to be equally considered in divorce settlements. Sometimes the woman might have to pay alimony to the man if she was the primary income provider. Though the procedures actually changed greatly, the results of alimony decisions changed far less. Despite making alimony laws not gender-oriented, still by the mid-1990s few women were ordered to pay alimony to former husbands.

Suggestions for further reading

Horgan, Timothy J. Winning Your Divorce: A Man's Survival Guide. New York: Dutton, 1994.

Miller, Kathleen A. Fair Share Divorce for Women. Bellevue, WA: Miller, Bird Advisors, Inc., 1995.

Pistotnik, Bradley A. Divorce War! 50 Strategies Every Woman Needs to Know to Win. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media, 1996.

Woodhouse, Violet, Victoria F. Collins, and M. C. Blakeman. Divorce and Money: How to Make the Best Financial Decisions During Divorce. Berkeley, CA: Nolo.com, 2000.