TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 133: May a man claim the hours his wife spends helping with his work?

I work for a book publisher, doing the final editing of manuscripts and preparing them for publication. When work is heavy, I am expected to put in a great deal of overtime, and, with my employer’s approval, I always have brought overtime work home. A few years ago, the whole operation was computerized, and my job was expanded to include typesetting the books I edit. Since a desktop publishing program is used for typesetting, that work is done on a personal computer, and a laser printer is adequate to generate the preliminary proofs. My employer supplied me with equipment to use at home that duplicates the setup at the office.

My wife was the secretary of the English department where I did my graduate work. We married when I completed my degree, and she stopped working outside the home just before our first baby was born. Being very skillful with a computer, she helped me master the typesetting program when I first brought that work home. Then she took over doing enough of the typesetting during the day so that I no longer have to spend any of my time at home on it. The result, gratifying to both of us, is that we can spend our time at home together in activities with the children and things like housework, shopping, and cooking.

My wife does the typesetting better and faster than I can. I have been reporting her actual hours, but only them, as “overtime at home.” My employer has been pleased enough with my work as a whole that both last year and this year I have received the largest raises of anyone in the department. My conscience bothers me slightly about reporting my wife’s work as mine, but if I told my employer what I have been doing, he probably would feel obliged by law to list my wife as a separate employee. I do not wish to invite trouble by telling him and seeking his approval.


This question calls for application of norms regarding lying, fraud, tax evasion, unfair competition, economic exploitation of a spouse, and restitution for injustices. Granting the assumptions of modern individualism, the questioner lies to his employer in reporting as his the hours his wife works, defrauds both his employer and the government, competes unfairly with fellow employees, and deprives his wife of recognition for her work. But on communitarian assumptions, family members—especially spouses—personally do whatever productive work they accomplish with one another’s help. On this communitarian position, the questioner is not lying to his employer nor cheating him or the government. His competition with fellow workers is fair, and he does not wrongly deprive his wife of due recognition. If the questioner is convinced that this communitarian view is true, he may act on it. If not, he might seek his employer’s approval for the arrangement. If approval is refused, he should desist and make appropriate restitution to him. Whether or not the employer approves, the questioner may owe restitution to one or more of the other parties.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I am sure many conscientious people would say very confidently that what you have been doing is gravely wrong. They would maintain that you have been lying by reporting as “overtime at home” many hours that you did not really work; deceiving your employer by having your wife do work you are paid to do; cheating your employer by collecting payment at your overtime rate for work done by your wife on a part-time basis; perhaps cheating the government out of the difference between the payroll taxes withheld from your wages and those that would be withheld if your wages and your wife’s were separated as they should be; competing unfairly with fellow employees who to your employer seem comparatively less capable, thus causing them to miss out on the merit raises you receive in virtue of your wife’s excellent work; and depriving your wife of the recognition she deserves. On this analysis, you must not only immediately stop what you have been doing but make appropriate restitution to all the parties you have been injuring.

That analysis no doubt is sound if one grants the individualistic assumptions underlying most modern social and economic theories and much modern practice. However, those assumptions are questionable, especially in their application to work done within a household by family members. In carrying out all their tasks, family members who love one another as they should naturally pitch in to help one another whenever help is needed and they can give it, and they do not keep track of their individual contributions to doing various jobs. While each one has primary responsibility for certain work, that responsibility is discharged adequately whether he or she completes everything with assistance or without it. With persons living, not individualistically, but in genuine communion, the two or more distinct individuals become we, so that there are no sharp boundaries between “my work” and “your work.” This is true especially of the husband and wife, who in marrying become, as it were, one new person: mutual help is part of the good of marriage (see LCL, 555–71). Consequently, there is a true sense in which family members in general, and spouses especially, do personally not only the productive work they individually accomplish but also whatever they do with one another’s help.

Consider a family that makes its living operating a convenience store. Dad is mainly responsible for the business, mother is mainly the homemaker and nurse for the little children, and the older children are mainly engaged in their schoolwork. Still, dad helps mother around the house and helps the children with their studies; mother does the paper work for the store, takes orders over the telephone, and even clerks when dad must be away; and the children also help out, not only by taking care of themselves when mother is busy with the store, but by delivering orders, stocking the shelves, and so on. Nobody keeps track of how many hours each family member spends doing this or that; nobody is overburdened or mistreated. In filing tax returns, mother reports the profit from the store as dad’s income and calculates self-employment taxes on that basis. No doubt, that violates the letter of the law, according to which she and each child working in the store should be treated as employees, with respect to whom dad would have to meet all laws and regulations regarding not only taxes but equal employment opportunity, minimum wage, child labor, and so on.

Now, like other laws, those this family technically violates should be presumed just and, with few exceptions, obeyed. Still, laws must be interpreted and applied reasonably. Assuming all the profit from the business is reported, would it be reasonable for the authorities to insist the father treat his wife and children as employees or to charge this family with tax fraud? I do not think so. Indeed, it seems to me that not condoning such a deviation from the letter of the law would unjustly impose upon a healthily functioning family an individualistic structure damaging to the family’s excellent communion. Of course, you are not operating a family business, and so your situation differs in various ways from that in the example. The point is, though, that within the family the individualism considered normal in modern economic and social relationships plainly is unhealthy, and the authorities, rather than spreading that disease, should condone the activities of families resistant to it.

Are you lying to, deceiving, and cheating your employer? On communitarian assumptions, you are doing the productive work you accomplish at home with your wife’s help. You accurately report the hours worked at home, and those hours are over and above the time you put in at the office. So, it seems to me, you are not lying to or deceiving your employer. Moreover, since your wife does the work better and faster than you can, your employer, rather than being cheated, is doing well from this mutually beneficial arrangement.

If you are not cheating your employer, neither are you cheating the government out of taxes, even on the assumption that they would be higher if you and your wife were listed on your employer’s payroll as two separate employees and compensated individually. As with the father of the family with the convenience store, you reasonably report the income resulting from all the common productive work within your household.

But what about the advantage this arrangement gives you over your fellow workers? It is real, but I do not think it is in any way unfair. Getting work done is not like competing in a sport or game in which individuals are matched against individuals. Even in the workplace structured by individualism, people help one another to some extent, and often the most productive are those who know how to get others’ cooperation and support. Nobody thinks a successful executive with productive assistants and excellent secretaries deserves less compensation and status than less successful competitors who do more of the work themselves. The advantage over fellow workers that you enjoy by having your wife’s help seems to me no less fair. You contribute more than they to the common good of the business, and how you accomplish this within your family circle is no concern of theirs.

What about depriving your wife of recognition for her excellent work? Certainly, she deserves recognition for it, and you should give it to her in abundance. But if you do and she is satisfied with your affection and gratitude and the children’s, I see nothing wrong in her voluntarily forgoing others’ recognition.

While I am persuaded by the preceding considerations, other reasonable people might disagree, and you should not act on my view unless really convinced of its truth. If you are not, what I have said thus far will not provide the help you need in forming your conscience. In that case, how might you proceed?

You could tell your employer about your wife’s computer skills and the help she gave you in learning the desktop publishing program, and ask whether there would be any objection to her doing the desktop publishing tasks you take home. If your employer objects, you will have to desist and make appropriate restitution to him. Moreover, if you believe that you have wronged your fellow employees, cheated the government, and deprived your wife of due recognition, you also will owe restitution to them. If your employer agrees, however, you can reasonably assume that what you have been doing has been fair to him and go on doing it without making restitution to him. Nevertheless, you will have to judge conscientiously whether the arrangement has been and will be fair to your fellow employees, the government, and your wife. Unless you are convinced it is, you must at once begin to treat all parties as they deserve and you also will owe appropriate restitution to the party or parties you judge you have treated unfairly.

I admire your wife and you for your way of life. Though very skillful with a computer, she quit working outside your home just before your first baby was born. She pitches in to help you with the typesetting so that you need not spend time on it at home. In this way, you enjoy the gratifying experience of spending your time at home together in activities with the children, housework, shopping, cooking, and so on. How blessed it is when a couple live together in such communion! Hope and pray the Holy Spirit will continue to enrich and strengthen your love, so that you will rejoice in it until death parts you and then, when resurrection rejoins you, forever and ever.