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Prince v. Prince

The Court Investigates

Chancellors Dunkin and Johnson then appointed a court assistant ("Master") to investigate George's finances. The Master completed his investigation in 1844 and the case came before the court. The report read:

The Master does not find any proof that the defendant is in possession of any estate, either real or personal; but from the testimony submitted, he finds that he is in the receipt of money; that he lives comfortably and well; and that in the Master's own mind there is little doubt that he is in possession of funds sufficient to meet any decree that may be awarded against him.

Then the court reviewed the evidence showing George lived the good life:

The evidence reported shows the existence of considerable income . . . It appears that the defendant has been in the habit of taking boarders; that he vends medicines, and occasionally administers them; that he lives in a hired house, for which he regularly pays considerable rent; and that he supports a woman who lives with him.

The court reasoned George's income might be $1,800 a year. As to whether he was bound to contribute to the support of the wife he had deserted, the court wrote:

By marriage the husband becomes entitled to whatever [property] the wife may possess, and to all her earnings. She is reduced to a state of comparative servitude. She cannot change her situation by another marriage, more agreeable or more beneficial to her. She is deprived of the power of making contracts; and, of course, of the means of accumulating property, or laying by the means of subsistence in sickness or old age. Will it do to say that the husband, entitling himself to all these advantages, and subjecting the wife to all these disabilities, by the marriage, is not bound, by all the means in his power, to sustain her? And if he deserts her, shall his desertion, which is, itself, a wrong, excuse him from the performance of this obligation? Certainly not. It would be a reproach to the law if this were so. God knows, the condition of all women, but especially of married women, is bad enough by the common law of England, and advancing civilization loudly demands its amelioration. But that law, which almost enslaves the wife, makes the husband liable for her support. It is a duty he has undertaken, with her aid, if he chooses to avail himself of it; and for which he is bound, if he rejects that assistance.

George had to pay Sarah alimony and the court told the Master to hear evidence on whether the child was George's or not and, if so, to order that George pay for his education and support as well. George lost his appeal of the decision.

Before this trial, husbands had paid alimony out of the livings they made from their property. Prince v. Prince granted alimony out of the husband's income, protecting more women. The empathy shown by the court eventually led to more liberal divorce laws in America. Even South Carolina developed rules to provide for a wife's support when the marriage was irretrievable. This reflected a broader change ushered in by Jacksonian democracy, which extended to greater numbers of people the same rights that had formerly been enjoyed by a privileged few.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Prince v. Prince - A Step Up, An Informal Marriage, The Court Investigates, Prenuptial Agreements